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Spread of rat disease to humans puzzles doctors

india Updated: Jan 22, 2007 03:10 IST
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A medical mystery has puzzled health officials in Maharashtra as a disease suffered by rats and cattle, that was first diagnosed in a Chandrapur farmer in 2004-05, has struck a secondhuman — a Mumbai baby.

"It is a disease of rats, that spreads from rats to rats. There is no evidence of transmission from rats to humans, except for these two cases in Maharashtra," Dr P Doke, State Director-General of Health Services, told the Hindustan Times, but did not divulge the baby’s gender.

"We are not sure how it transmitted from rats to humans. It seems to be accidental infection. The second case was detected in a newborn at the BJ Wadia Hospital, just four to five months back. It could be a case of rat bite though there was no detectable injury."

The disease is a form of trypanosomiasis. In Africa and South Americ, trypanosomiasis spreads from the tsetse fly and is known as sleeping sickness because the parasite attacks the central nervous system.

Patients suffer fevers, insomnia at night and exhaustion all day. "The cases in Maharashtra are not sleeping sickness,’’ said Doke, who described it as a fever. ``It is caused by a different species, not the same as the disease endemic in Africa."

In 2005, researchers had reported the discovery of India’s first case of trypanosomiasis in a 45-year-old farmer from Seoni village, Chandrapur district near Nagpur. The farmer had never travelled outside his district and was admitted to a rural hospital in September 2004 with fever, chills and sweating.

He became disoriented and expressed violent behaviour. The parasites in his blood were found to contain many trypanosomes of the species T evansi that infects animals like cattle and camels. The farmer entered medical records as the first human to be infected with this parasite.

The farmer was cured of the early stage disease but remained under supervision till February last year. International specialists, a WHO team and state health officials conducted surveillance and found that several healthy people in Chandrapur district already had antibodies to fight the infection. "The presence of antibodies means they were exposed to the parasite,’’ said Doke. In Africa, patients are known to slip into coma and die. But the Maharashtra cases are ‘not serious’, said Doke.

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