NEW DELHI (AP) – A team of doctors rushed to central India on Wednesday after at least 12 women died and dozens of others fell ill following sterilisation surgery held as part of a free, nationwide program aimed at limiting births in the world’s second-most populous nation, officials said.
A total of 83 women, all villagers under the age of 32, had the operations Saturday as part of the federal government’s free sterilization campaign and were sent home that evening. But dozens later became ill and were rushed in ambulances to private hospitals in Bilaspur, a city in central Chhattisgarh state.
By Wednesday morning, at least 12 women had died, officials said.
The apparent cause of death was either blood poisoning or hemorrhagic shock, which occurs when a person has lost too much blood, state deputy health director Amar Singh said, though the preliminary results from autopsies were expected to be released Wednesday.
Dozens of the women were still hospitalised Wednesday, including some in critical condition. “Their condition is very serious. Blood pressure is low,” said Dr. Ramesh Murty at CIMS hospital, one of the facilities where the sick women were taken.
The Chhattisgarh state government sent a plane to New Delhi overnight to pick up a team of four doctors “to ensure no time is lost” in treating the patients, Indian Health Secretary Lov Verma told Press Trust of India.
India’s government – long concerned about pervasive poverty among its rapidly growing 1.3 billion population – performs millions of free sterilisations to both women and men who want to avoid the risk and cost of having a baby. The vast majority of patients are poor women who are usually paid a one-time incentive fee to undergo the surgery of about $10-$20.
India has one of the world’s highest rates of sterilisation among women, with about 37 percent undergoing such operations, compared with 29 percent in China, according to 2006 statistics reported by the United Nations.
Activists blame the incentive payments, as well as sterilisation quotas set by the government, for leading health authorities to pressure patients into surgery rather than advising them on other forms of contraception.
“These women have become victims because of the target-based approach to population control,” said Brinda Karat of the All India Democratic Women’s Association, who has demanded that the state’s health minister resign.
The state suspended four government doctors, including the surgeon who oversaw the operations and the district’s chief medical officer. “It appears the incident occurred due to negligence” by doctors, Chhattisgarh Chief Minister Raman Singh said, before urging patience for the autopsy results.