KOTA, India (Reuters) - In a dimly lit shanty in northwestern India, Padma Rawal sobs inconsolably as she recalls losing her 5-month-old infant, and recounts the hospital ordeal she endured last month.
Her infant, Tejash, is one of more than a 100 children who have died at a government hospital in Kota in the state of Rajasthan since early December.
Infant deaths are common in India, but the spike in fatalities at a state-run institution and evidence of poor hygiene, broken equipment and staff shortages has made headlines and triggered a row between the two main political parties.
District data in fact shows the infant mortality rate at the JK Lon Hospital in Kota has improved to 5.69% with 963 deaths in 2019 down from 6.11% in 2018, when 1,005 deaths were reported.
But details from affected families and two preliminary investigations have emerged, embarrassing the regional government and local health authorities.
Padma said there were three or four infants in each bed when she was there in late December.
“Why are you crying? Your child is going to die anyway,” Padma recalled one doctor telling her, as she sat weeping beside her husband, Sanjay, and daughters - Kanika, 6, and Purvi, 4.
Reuters spoke with the parents of nine children who either died or were being treated at the hospital. All described staff shortages, poor sanitary conditions and a lack of basic provisions such as blankets despite very cold weather.
Rajasthan Health Minister Raghu Sharma tweeted that most of the infants who died had low birth weights and were in critical condition. He vowed “strict action” would be taken against any officials found guilty of negligence.
At least 112 children have died at the hospital since the start of December, even as authorities scrambled to bring in additional staff and equipment amid public outcry.
Around three quarters of the recent deaths occurred in JK Lon’s neo-natal intensive care unit (NICU), which treats babies up to a month old, said an official directly aware of the matter.
Hospital officials said infant mortality rates may appear high, partly because it handles many referral cases and is a hospital of last resort. It is the only one with an NICU in a 200 km radius.
Shubham Hada, who lost his two-day-old son at the hospital to what he was told was a severe infection, said: “Parents had to monitor their babies all night by themselves in the NICU. There were no doctors after 10 pm, when the shift changed.”
Pooja, holding her sick 2-month-old infant in her lap, said authorities distributed blankets and room heaters only late last week, despite a severe cold wave across northern India since late December.
“We’ve been living in hell,” she said. “At least they have started cleaning the place once a day after the media uproar and visits by ministers.”
A preliminary probe into the deaths at JK Lon found that of 533 pieces of equipment in its paediatrics section, 320 were out of order, including defibrillators and ventilators.
JK Lon’s medical superintendent, Suresh Dulara, who took additional charge of the center in late December, said that the hospital had started repairing equipment.
A separate probe by the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights, a government agency, found that infrastructure and sanitation was “pathetic”.
“Pigs were found roaming inside the campus of the hospital,” it said.
The deaths and surrounding furore set off a row between India’s two main political parties.
The Congress party, which sits in opposition nationally, won Rajasthan state in December 2018 elections.
It pointed to the higher overall death rate at the hospital under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which ran Rajasthan previously.
The BJP hit back, saying appropriate funding has been assigned to the state under the National Health Mission and urged the state to request further financial support.
Modi’s government has raised expenditure on healthcare recently and set a target to take the annual health spending to 2.5% of GDP by 2025. It was 1.4% in 2017-18.
Latest government data show a decrease in infant mortality nationwide to 33 per 1000 live births in 2017 from 53 in 2008.
Despite the government’s attempts to improve healthcare in India, infant mortality remains a concern.
The United Nations in a 2017 report said more babies die in India than any other country, with roughly 600,000 deaths recorded annually, or one quarter of the world total. India, in comparison, accounts for about 18% of global population.
Reporting by Abhirup Roy; Editing by Euan Rocha and Mike Collett-White