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Kashmir violence sparks health crisis

By: Izhar Wani

Mehbooba Nazir, 34, suffers from a weak heart since her husband and eight-year-old son were killed by a massive bomb blast here on January 3.

The housewife almost went mad after their deaths. She was slowly nursed back, but still has heart specialists and psychiatrists attending on her at a Srinagar hospital. Not many victims of the violence in Kashmir are that lucky.

With an average of eight people dying every day in the Himalayan state, people across the trouble-torn Kashmir Valley lead a life of unending stress and tension and poor medical response.

The conflict has claimed some 20,000 lives according to official count and many more have been maimed or displaced. Doctors say this has resulted in a serious mental health crisis. Compounding it is the lack of a system of therapy in Kashmir.

To deal with stress-related diseases doctors prescribe tranquillisers at random. Even those who are not advised gobble tranquillisers like peanuts, without realising the possible side-affects. “I know many patients who can’t do without tranquillisers,” said a worried surgeon, Khurshid Alam. “They have become addicted and that is dangerous.”

Even children here are given valium to make them sleep soundly — which can be a rarity if the guns boom at night as they often do.

Doctors say even Kashmiris who have not directly suffered by the violence complain of palpitation, anxiety, insomnia, depression and irritability.

In 1990, soon after a bloody Moslem separatist campaign erupted in Kashmir, 1,762 patients were treated at the Sri Maharaja Hari Singh hospital here for stress-related diseases. The number rose to 17,584 by 1994, and almost doubled by December 1996.

The unending conflict has paralysed the state’s medical system, resulting in packed hospitals, poor infrastructure and vanishing doctors.

At Soura Institute, Srinagar’s most modern hospital, doctors say they often accommodate two wounded patients on one bed. “This is because we get a large number of patients,” one specialist said.

The more serious cases are referred to New Delhi, some 700 kilometers (437 miles) away. On top of the overcrowding, Soura hospital faces recurring shortages of medicines. Costly equipment and drugs are stolen regularly. The hospital also remains understaffed.

In 1990, Hindus doctors fled the Kashmir Valley as Moslem separatists stepped up their terror campaign. In the years that followed, Moslem doctors left for the Middle East in large numbers.

Abdul Ahad Guroo, a leading cardiac surgeon who was also Soura’s administrator, was shot dead by Moslem guerrillas in April 1993. Many doctors have been arrested and tortured by Indian security forces for their suspected link with Moslem militants. Doctors have been threatened by both police and militants.

Doctors say the condition of hospitals in remote parts of Kashmir is worse.

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