On October 12, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee said 30 people in the state had died of dengue in the “past seven to eight months”. This was the first time her government had announced a figure for the number of people who had died of the mosquito-borne viral infection, even as allegations mounted that the administration was suppressing information about a health crisis.

The next fortnight, at a meeting of the ruling Trinamool Congress on October 25, Banerje put the number at 34 dead. But on October 30, she told reporters at a press conference that only 13 people had died of dengue, while 27 others had died of fever –many of them in private hospitals, she added.

The disease has been at the centre of a vociferous political controversy in West Bengal. Many state residents believe that the state government is under-counting the casualties. Opposition parties have used the disease to target the chief minister, who also doubles up as state health minister.

If this wasn’t enough to keep the administration’s hands full, it found itself facing criticism from the private health industry. This grew louder on the weekend, after the Kolkata Municipal Corporation ordered all private pathology laboratories to hand over blood samples that had tested positive for dengue for a second test.

Private hospitals dissatisfied

Relations between private medical practitioners and the state government have been strained since March, when the Assembly passed the West Bengal Clinical Establishments Bill. It set up a commission to monitor private healthcare outfits, determine their pricing and listen to public complaints against them.

In a statement issued on October 30, a Joint Convention of Doctors of West Bengal said that despite a breakout of viral diseases such as dengue every year over the last decade, they did not receive “appropriate back-up from health and civic administrations regarding prevention, guidelines on early diagnosis and treatment, management of overflow of such patients, and were thus again exposed to violence [by relatives of patients]”.

The cover-up: Mystery fever

The suggestion that the number of dengue cases is being underplayed does not surprise public health specialists. Suppressing disease data is an established public health tradition in India, they say. In 2016, for instance, an Al Jazeeera investigation showed that India under-reports malaria by describing deaths from the disease as resulting from cardio-respiratory failure, or collapse of the heart and lungs.

On Thursday, the Bengali language daily Anandabazaar Patrika published a similar story: Anjana Kundu of Bongaon town said her husband was diagnosed with dengue but the doctor at a Kolkata nursing home wrote “sudden cardio-respiratory arrest in a case of sepsis and multiple-organ failure” on his death certificate.

Anjana Kundu has said her husband died of dengue but his death certificate lists cardio-respiratory arrest and multi-organ failure as cause of death.

Numbers raise questions

Even as Mamata Banerjee’s efforts to tackle dengue have been questioned, so have the numbers she has presented in the government’s defence. The online database of the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme mentions 19 dengue deaths for West Bengal as of October 29 – six more than the 13 deaths the chief minister mentioned at her press conference on October 30.

According to the figures in the programme’s directory, West Bengal is the fourth worst-affected state this year after Tamil Nadu (52 deaths), Kerala (35) and Uttar Pradesh (26). But unlike Banerjee’s administration, governments in the other states have not publicly denied the problem.

West Bengal’s figures for other vector-borne diseases this year have also given cause for worry. According to the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme, the state has recorded the highest number of deaths from malaria (26), the second highest for Japanese Encephalitis (29) and the third highest for Acute Encephalitis (132).

Mamata Banerjee also holds the health portfolio, which has added to criticism of her handling of the dengue situation in West Bengal. (Credit: Dibyangshu Sarkar / AFP)

Rain, Puja break heightened problem

This year, the situation deteriorated towards the end of September as a result of unseasonal rainfall and a long Puja vacation. A public interest litigation filed in the Calcutta High Court by a member of the activist organisation Young Bengal mentioned 13 official days for the Pujas, accounting for almost a three-week break including weekends. The Kolkata Municipal Corporation had four more holidays for Kali Pujo in October. During this holiday period, drains got clogged and garbage piled up, allowing mosquitoes to breed.

Two other public interest litigations have been filed – including one by the state BJP unit – seeking information on the dengue situation in the state. On Friday, Governor Keshari Nath Tripathi wrote to the state government asking it to ensure treatment for the infected.

Banerjee has held the health portfolio, considered a ministry with heavy responsibilities, since she first became chief minister in 2011. In the days right after she assumed office, Banerjee would pay surprise visits to government hospitals, with the media in tow. Given the hands-on activist persona that she has cultivated, the dengue situation has not reflected well on her.

The Opposition is aware of this. Bengal BJP president Dilip Ghosh has mocked Banerjee as “Dengue-shree”, a riff on the state government’s award-winning Kanyashree Prakalpa programme that aims to keep girl children in school. Last week, a poster of a giant mosquito appeared on the Kolkata Municipal Corporation premises with the words, “This is not a mosquito. This is an unknown insect.”