Oxygen shortages at a northern Indian hospital have left dozens of children dead, officials announced on Saturday.
They said that at least 60 children were killed at the Baba Raghav Das Hospital in Gorakhpur district in Uttar Pradesh state in the past five days.
They warned that the death toll could rise.
District Magistrate Rajiv Rautela said Saturday the deaths of the children being treated for different ailments were due to natural causes. He denied that the lack of oxygen led to their deaths.
A statement issued by the office of state chief minister Yogi Adityanath, which has ordered the inquiry, said that all 60 deaths had occurred at the hospital’s pediatric ward over a five-day period starting Monday.
Twenty-three children died on Thursday, when, according to the statement, “the pressure of the liquid oxygen supply became low and 52 reserve oxygen cylinders were pressed into service”.
Authorities said they have launched an inquiry but denied reports that a lack of oxygen had caused the deaths in Uttar Pradesh state, which is ruled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.
Indian media said 30 children died on Thursday and Friday after oxygen supply was disrupted in wards housing the sick, allegedly because the suppliers’ bills were not paid.
“We have launched an inquiry and a preliminary report should be out today. Yes, 60 patients have died at the hospital in the last five days but we don’t think it’s linked to reports of oxygen shortage,” Anil Kumar, Gorakhpur’s divisional commissioner told AFP.
The Hindustan Times newspaper on Saturday described chaotic scenes at the hospital as oxygen supply was disrupted.
“Even as 90 jumbo oxygen cylinders were pressed into service to maintain the supply on Friday, the hospital ran out of oxygen around 1.00 am,” it said.
“All hell broke loose,” the report added.
“What followed was complete chaos as panic-stricken relatives of patients ran for help, and with the support of hospital staff tried to maintain supply of oxygen… using artificial manual breathing bags.
“However several patients started collapsing due to inadequate supply,” it added.
Parents said oxygen supply to the ward ran out Thursday night and patients’ families were given self-inflating bags to help the children breathe.
“That’s the time when the death of the children peaked,” said Mritunjaya Singh, whose 7-month old son was admitted to the hospital and was not among the dead.
Prashant Trivedi, the state’s top health official, admitted that there was a problem in the pipeline supplying oxygen.
“But the situation was managed through oxygen cylinders. The hospital administration has enough supply of cylinders in its stock. So the report about death of children because of oxygen issue is false,” Trivedi said.
The parents said the company that supplies oxygen to the hospital had earlier threatened to stop oxygen distribution unless the government paid their long overdue bills.
Rautela said that the hospital owed 6.8 million rupees ($106,000) to the company, but added that it had adequate numbers of oxygen cylinders.
The region is one of India’s poorest and registers hundreds of child deaths each year from Japanese Encephalitis and Acute Encephalitis Syndrome, which is rife in parts of eastern and northern India.
“We will be getting more liquid oxygen cylinders tonight or tomorrow, and have also cleared the dues of the supplier,” district official Kumar told AFP.
He added that the deaths “could be (due to) natural (causes), as many patients admitted at the hospital are serious”.
India’s Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi, a campaigner for children’s rights, described the deaths as “a massacre” on Twitter.
“Thirty kids died in hospital without oxygen. This is not a tragedy. It’s a massacre. Is this what 70 years of freedom means for our children?” he asked.