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Here, the elixir of life actually kills

Year after year, there are sporadic outbreaks of cholera, gastroenteritis, hepatitis, intestinal worms and typhoid in the Capital, reports Jaya Shroff.

india Updated: Dec 27, 2007 01:44 IST
Jaya Shroff

Drinking is injurious to health. In Anand Lal’s case, the poison was water. He was told that he was dying.

Soon after, the 33-year-old was moved to the intensive care unit of a private hospital, all wired up, being constantly monitored by sophisticated gadgets and a team of doctors. Lal was battling for his life.

It wouldn’t have come to this, of course, if the Delhi government had provided its citizens clean water. What they get now is full of disease-causing coliform and toxic chemicals. Year after year, there are sporadic outbreaks of cholera, gastroenteritis, hepatitis, intestinal worms and typhoid in the Capital.

Lal has no idea where he had contracted the deadly Hepatitis-E virus — whether it was in Gurgaon, where he works as an operator at an electronics manufacturing company, or in Delhi. The condition of his liver started deteriorating fast.

"The only hope, the doctors said, was liver transplant. And do you know how much that costs? Rs 32 lakhs. How do you think a lower middle class family can afford that kind of treatment?" asked Salim Khan, Lal's friend.

Doctors said they would keep Lal under observation for 24 hours and go ahead with the transplant if the condition did not improve.

They asked the family to arrange for the money and a donor. Both seemed impossible. The money, they couldn't afford and getting a donor was even tougher as Lal's blood type did not match with that of his family members.

"We only prayed for his speedy recovery," said Lal's wife, Lata.

It was Diwali and the Lal family took a life-and-death decision.

"I was dying and doctors at (the private hospital) had given up all hopes, when my family and friends decided to consult a new doctor," recounts Lal. He was moved to the ICCU at Sir Gangaram Hospital where doctors eventually saved his life without the transplant.

Numerous Delhi residents are affected each year by Hepatitis A and Hepatitis E, which cause jaundice that takes about four to ten weeks of treatment.

In 90 per cent of the cases, the liver suffers mild damage, but the remaining 10 per cent can require intensive care and hospital management. Two in a hundred patients might also require a liver transplant, said Dr Sanjeev Sehgal at the Sir Gangaram Hospital.

"Luckily for Anand, timing and medication were both right. Although his liver is working fine, he has to be really cautious in his food and water intake," he said.

"I don't remember much as I was mostly unconscious, but I now shiver to think -- what if I had had to undergo a liver transplant?" Lal said.

"We had never guessed that simple jaundice could come close to killing him. His case was such an eye opener that every time I drink water, I not only scan it with naked eyes but also enquire if it was treated," said his friend Khan, who was with him through the trauma. "Spending a few thousands on a powerful water purifier or Rs 10 on bottled water is much cheaper than spending fortunes on liver treatment."

"Improper waste water management leads to urban diseases like dengue, malaria and chickengunia," said Dr Bir Singh, professor of community medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

The most affected population comes from the slums and unauthorised colonies where little effort is made to improve water or sanitary conditions, leading to higher infant mortality and intestinal diseases.

But Delhi's poisonous water doesn't just affect the poor. In another part of the city, a mother won her battle with life but lost her unborn baby to Hepatitis E.

Neetu Singh of the Najafgarh neighbourhood, married just 11 months, was visiting her parents-in-law in the suburbs when she contracted the disease. She felt nauseous and threw up repeatedly - which her family happily took to be a sign of pregnancy.

She began taking pills - that had nothing to do with Hepatitis E.

"Only when she failed to respond to the local treatment, we decided to get her to the city but she collapsed on the way," said her husband Pradeep Singh. She was rushed to a private hospital in a precarious condition.

"Especially in cases of pregnancy, (Hepatitis E) could prove fatal sometimes," said Dr Subhash Gupta of Apollo Hospital. After a day of observation, Neetu Singh was advised to undergo liver transplant.

"Everything happened so suddenly that I really did not get much time to think. All the decisions had to be taken in 6-7 hours time," said her husband. "We knew it was choosing life over death, so nothing else mattered." Pradeep donated his liver to his wife.

The treatment cost the family Rs 23 lakhs, including the hospital stay. But just as his wife was recovering, disaster struck again: Pradeep Singh himself contracted the virus. However, "this time the damage was mild as it was investigated and looked into in time," said Dr Gupta.

But the family's tragic tryst with water was to witness the worst end. Neetu lost her baby..