By Abhirup Roy
KOTA, Rajasthan (Reuters) - Some 109 children have so far died at a government hospital in northern India since the beginning of December, said a hospital official on Sunday, even as local authorities scrambled to bring in additional staff and equipment amid a rising outcry over poor healthcare facilities in the country.
"The death toll since Dec. 1 stands at 109," Suresh Dulara, the medical superintendent of JK Lon Hospital in Kota, in the northwestern state of Rajasthan, told Reuters on Sunday.
The deaths, which have begun to grab national headlines in the last week, have sparked a social media firestorm about the deplorable state of many government healthcare facilities.
It has also unleashed a political blame game between the state's ruling Congress party, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party at the center, after Rajasthan's chief minister defended the situation saying there had been more infant deaths at that hospital, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi's BJP was in power in the state.
Roughly three quarters of the deaths have occurred in the hospital's neonatal intensive care unit, which treats up to one-month-old babies, said an official directly aware of the matter.
A team appointed by the central health ministry is probing the deaths and will come out with a report soon, said the source who asked not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
A lack of infrastructure and staff, along with unhygienic conditions may have played a role in some of the deaths, said the source, adding the hospital - the only center with a neonatal intensive care unit in a 200-kilometre radius - is often a hospital that receives critically ill children from elsewhere, contributing to higher mortality rates.
Much of north India has also been hit by a severe cold wave since late in December, and officials at the hospital have now rushed to provide blankets, bedsheets and heaters, said patients at the hospital.
On Saturday, the National Human Rights Commission sent a notice to the state government stating the situation raises some serious concerns.
"The state is duty bound to provide basic necessary medical care to its citizens," the commission said.
Separately, local media reported on Sunday that 219 infants had died in December at two government hospitals in the western state of Gujarat - a BJP-ruled state, which is the home state of Modi.
(Reporting by Abhirup Roy; Editing by Euan Rocha and Lisa Shumaker)