Why Are So Many Babies Dying at This Hospital in India?

Stories from Roads & Kingdoms
April 11 2014 7:05 AM

Why Are So Many Babies Dying at This Hospital in India?

The hospital conditions are appalling, but a bigger reason may be the crumbling infrastructure that prevents the poor from getting the care they need.       

A relative carries the body of a newborn child from the Dr. B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital for Children in Kolkata on June 30, 2011.
A relative carries the body of a newborn child from B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital for Children in Kolkata in 2011.

Photo by Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

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KOLKATA, India—The route to B.C. Roy Memorial Hospital for Children in Kolkata is a pilgrimage nobody wants to make. But many of West Bengal’s poor have little choice. Parents and their sick children camp on the hospital’s grounds like refugees, waiting to see a doctor. Lines of would-be patients snake through every corridor. In the intensive care unit, every incubator is occupied by a newborn in critical condition.

The overburdened government hospital is West Bengal’s largest pediatric care center, and after a series of high-profile deaths in recent years, it has become a public symbol of India’s ongoing struggle with infant mortality. But the story of B.C. Roy often portrayed in the national media paints an incomplete picture. In fact, the hospital’s case points to a larger system that is failing India’s newborns. In 2012, India recorded 44 infant deaths per 1,000 berths, according to a report by the World Bank. (By contrast, Luxembourg, which tops the list, reported an average of just two.) The problem is particularly severe in poor states such as West Bengal, which includes Kolkata.

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Many parents, having sought treatment at inadequate hospitals in remote regions, are bringing their children to B.C. Roy already at death’s door. And the number of infants dying in West Bengal is likely even higher than reported: Nobody knows how many babies die in the seats of cars or crowded buses on the lonely, truck-dominated highways that reach Kolkata from the outer reaches of West Bengal. Indian newspapers write only about the babies who die after they already arrive at their destination, but logic dictates that just as many, if not more, die while still en route.

The state of infant care in West Bengal is in stark contrast to the birth of my own child in Breach Candy Hospital, one of Mumbai’s highly regarded private hospitals, in May. Six nurses tended to him, and my wife’s room featured a wide-angle view of the blue waves of the Arabian Sea crashing against the city’s shoreline.

As I investigated West Bengal’s hospital system, I was constantly reminded of the drastic difference between the lives of India’s rich and poor. And the division between those two worlds can often be a matter of life and death. 

The story of B.C. Roy, according to newspaper accounts, begins in June 2011, when 18 babies died at the hospital over the course of two days. The news was first reported locally, but the outrage spread beyond Kolkata’s city limits. On national television, newscasters labeled B.C. Roy a “hospital of death.”

Hoping to blunt a politically poisonous scandal before it spun out of control, Mamata Banerjee, the state’s chief minister, or head of government, who doubles as minister of home, health and family welfare, established an inquiry into the infant deaths. Heading the inquiry was Dr. Tridib Banerjee, a private practice pediatrician (who is of no relation to Mamata Banerjee), and is known as the pediatrician to the state’s wealthy and elite.

Dr. Banerjee created the High Level Task Force, comprised of a group of health care professionals, to recommend things like the allocation of new equipment, the hiring of new doctors, and anything else that might prevent future incidents of infant mortality at the state’s many government hospitals. As a result, the intensive care unit at B.C. Roy was expanded, and carefully vetted hires were made.

But the worst was yet to come. In September, two years after adding modern equipment that Banerjee assured me was “as good anyone would find in the best American hospitals,” an astounding 41 babies died in the span of six days.  

The national media pounced on the story; B.C. Roy was again featured at the top of evening news programs. Considering the failure of the High Level Task Force, the Mamata Banerjee regime had few other recourses other than to express regret over the tragedy and wait for a new scandal to cast the spotlight elsewhere. In India, scandals are as common as mosquitoes, and before long the cameras left the hospital.

But the chances of another headline-grabbing story coming from B.C. Roy are high. According to Dr. Banarjee, the shocking rate of infant deaths experienced in September only represents an increase of about 20 percent over the regular rate at the hospital. In fact, it’s not uncommon for B.C. Roy to lose four or five babies on consecutive days.

While pundits allege patient neglect or medical incompetence, no one in the Indian press has so far identified the cause. So the question remains: Why are so many babies dying at B.C. Roy?

According to Dr. S.K. Ghosh, the head of pediatric medicine at the hospital, the answer can be found along those lonely highways that drift in and out of Kolkata from the rural parts of the state.

Ghosh, 51, has the kind of soft, avuncular demeanor and tired eyes that evoke sympathy. A typical day for Ghosh involves telling parents their infant has died. Speaking in his office at the end of a dimly lit hallway painted with murals of Disney characters, he explains that he was hired in the wake of the hospital’s first reported wave of infant deaths in 2011, after Banarjee’s High Level Task Force was formed. Since then, Ghosh’s primary responsibility has been to ensure that lives are saved and that the hospital’s death rate doesn’t spike again.

But Ghosh can’t control the circumstances that dictate the infant mortality rate at the hospital. “This hospital has become media prone,” Ghosh says. “But look instead at the bigger picture. We accept so many patients from other places, and they arrive to us in an already deteriorated state of health.”

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