Narendra Kumar (45) is not a crazed fan of Robin Cook’s medical thrillers. But these days, he is talking about a possible genetic mutation of a virus and its lethal comeback. Dr Kumar is the senior child specialist in Saharanpur district hospital and the virus in question is that of the ‘mystery fever’ that has been visiting Saharanpur between September and December every year, for 20 years.
With a death toll of 48, H1N1 has pushed the nation to borderline paranoia. But at its worst, the mystery fever killed 161 people in 2005 in the Saharanpur district hospital alone, and averages around 70 deaths per year.
Locals call it dimagi bukhar (brain fever) or Saharanpur encephalitis; doctors refer to it as Acute Encephalitis Syndrome. But all of them are equally clueless about the cause and treatment of the disease.
Suman Singh of Saidpura village remembers what happened to her 14-year-old son Anuj: “One day he suddenly vomited and developed high fever, a severe stomach ache and headache. We took him to the nearby Sarsawa primary health centre (PHC) but were told to go to Saharanpur. There they said it was dengue and sent us to Chandigarh. There, the next day at 4 am, the blood report said it was not dengue. Six hours later, Anuj was gone.”
The story is repeated with practically every mystery fever victim in Saharanpur district. The interval between the appearance of the first symptoms — high fever and vomiting — and the patient’s death is a mere six hours on average; at times as low as two hours. The incidence is highest in children aged eight and younger, with the mortality rate an astounding 85 per cent.
Meanwhile, the nearest PHC in Sarsawa is all geared to treat the next outbreak — like a routine fever. “We have a good stock of paracetamol injections. We have also written out basic information about the fever on our wall. What more can we do?” asks pharmacist B. Sajavan.
Dr Kumar’s outlook is grimmer, though. “We are hoping the virus will be under control this year,” he says. “But there is a possibility it might mutate and come back stronger and deadlier this September.”