Mosquito-borne disease kills 110 children

HYDERABAD, India -- Mosquito-borne encephalitis has killed 110 children in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh in the past six weeks, health officials said Tuesday.

Most of the victims were poor, malnourished children from rural areas who may have succumbed because of a sudden change in weather from intense summer heat to monsoon rains.

P. Laxmi Rajyam, the state's director of health services, said the meningo-encephalitis, which causes inflammation of the brain, has affected at least 196 children across the state. Children are more susceptible because their immune systems are weaker.

Rajyam said two leading federal laboratories in New Delhi and the western city of Pune had tested the virus and found no link to the West Nile virus that has caused encephalitis in the United States.

Local media have for weeks reported isolated deaths of children for an unknown reason. Rajyam confirmed the toll and the cause for the first time Tuesday in an interview with The Associated Press.

"We have found that the people living in the periphery of the villages, especially near the fields and water bodies, have fallen victim to this disease," she said.

The disease hits India every year, but usually in the drier months of October-December and it usually causes fewer deaths.

A World Health Organization spokeswoman said encephalitis is endemic to Asia and around 50,000 cases are recorded every year.

"What is worrisome about this particular outbreak is the case fatality rate is around 55 percent, whereas normally it is 30 percent," Cheng said in Geneva. "But I think the kids falling ill are perhaps not getting treatment immediately."

India, a poor nation of more than a billion people, has scanty health care in rural areas where the children would have first fallen sick.

Cheng says the last year for which figures in Andhra Pradesh were available was 1999, in which 965 cases of the disease were reported with 200 deaths. Throughout Asia last year there were 50,000 cases and 10,000 deaths.

No treatment is available for meningo-encephalitis, but doctors can treat the symptoms. There also are vaccines and the usual action is to vaccinate a population once there has been an outbreak. "They may have been strained for resources because of the SARS outbreak," she added.

Rajyam said the number of cases is declining, but they have occurred in 10 of the 23 districts in Andhra Pradesh.

The symptoms start with very high fever, followed by fits, vomiting, then vomiting of blood, and finally, coma. There are also changes of behavior and delirium.

Many parts of India are experiencing above-average monsoon rains, causing heavier flooding than usual and sending thousands of people from their homes to higher areas.

"We are receiving good rains for the first time after a three-year gap and with the rains we have also got a massive attack of mosquitoes," said S. Venkateshwara Rao, a state lawmaker from the affected district of Nalgonda. Nine children have died in his constituency.