India's Supreme Court on Monday directed state and national authorities to file reports to the court on an encephalitis outbreak in the eastern state of Bihar this month in which 152 children have died. A senior Bihar health department official, Sanjay Kumar, said the epidemic is showing signs of slowing, with no new deaths on Monday. The fatalities have occurred in 20 of the state's 38 districts, the AP reports. More than 700 cases of encephalitis have been registered since the outbreak began June 1, officials said. Young children are particularly vulnerable to the illness, which can cause swelling of the brain, fever, and vomiting. The outbreak has been exacerbated by a heat wave, with temperatures in Patna, Bihar's capital, reaching a high of 114.5 Fahrenheit. "We're hoping with the onset of the monsoon, the epidemic will ease further," Kumar said.
The Supreme Court was responding to a petition filed by a lawyer. "The deaths of children are a direct result of negligence and inaction" on the part of authorities, per the petitioner. The court expressed concern over the deaths and asked the governments to respond within seven days with details on medical facilities, nutrition, sanitation, and hygiene conditions in the state. Thousands of Indians suffer from encephalitis, malaria, typhoid, and other mosquito-borne diseases each year during the summer monsoon season. India's central government has sent medical experts to Bihar to help doctors treat the patients. The Bihar authorities have been sharply criticized because patients were sharing beds in crowded hospital wards with too few doctors. The families who could afford it transferred their children to private hospitals in Patna and other larger cities. (Read more encephalitis stories.)