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Sickening situation

Who cares? Several states are in the grip of diseases, yet the overwhelming media attention is only on the national capital, reports Sanchita Sharma.

delhi Updated: Sep 14, 2010 01:13 IST
Sanchita Sharma

When it comes to disease control, forewarned is not forearmed. Disease outbreaks strike India each year with more regularity than the monsoons, yet the government is always caught unprepared.

Beginning July, in almost every part of the country, infection strikes a few thousand and kills a few scores. With luck, the cause of the outbreak is identified in some cases. In most others, the cause of death is put down as “acute viral fever”, medicalese for what the media refers to as “mystery fever” and “killer flu”.

Take western Uttar Pradesh, where people living in the districts of Moradabad, Baghpat and Saharanpur have been losing young children to a “mystery fever” for more than a decade. This year, 10 children under eight died of an undiagnosed fever in Moradabad district of western Uttar Pradesh in the last week of August, while another 35 children are being treated flu in the district hospital. While the H1N1 virus — popularly known as swine flu — has been ruled out, what caused the deaths remains a mystery. The sources of the epidemics

But knowing what is killing their children hasn’t helped people living in Gorakhhpur and its surrounding districts in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Japanese encephalitis (JE) killed seven more children on Sunday, taking the number of those killed this year to 281. The mosquito-borne disease has been striking the district between July and October with clockwork regularity for more than three decades. This year, it infected 1,814 — more than 90 per cent under the age of 15 years — causing swelling in the membranes around the brain that causes death or life-long physical disability and mental retardation in survivors. The contagion spreads

Though Gorakhpur is among the 21 districts in 10 states where children are vaccinated against JE under a national programme — the government claims 81.15 per cent coverage in 2008-09 — the infection affected 4,482 people and killed 774 in 2009. The disease is yet to peak in September and October, yet by August-end, the state has already registered 1,896 cases and 270 deaths.

The dengue story is no different. Delhi’s biggest dengue outbreak occurred in 1996, with 10,252 recorded cases and 423 deaths. Yet, halfway into the outbreak, Delhi has recorded 1,794 cases and five deaths in 2010.

Scientists blame Delhi’s woes on the dengue virus serotype, which determines how severe the disease will be. “Cases are high this year because the dengue serotype 1 virus is circulating in Delhi, which causes a large number of infections but few deaths,” said Union Health Secretary Sujatha Rao.

No one, said Rao, would be so obsessed with dengue if it wasn’t for the Commonwealth Games. There is some truth in what she says.

Till the end of August, compared to Delhi’s 937 cases — which almost doubled to 1,792 by September 10 — Kerala reported 2,167 dengue cases and 13 deaths, and Karnataka 1,338, but the outbreaks were ignored. Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Maharashtra have also reported dengue outbreaks. But the only outbreak that hogs primetime national news is the one in Delhi.

Karnataka is also grappling with the mosquito-borne malaria, which has infected 17,374, and chikunguya, which has caused 1,071 confirmed infections. Chikungunya, which causes symptoms of headache, fever, fatigue, nausea, vomiting, muscle pain, rash, and joint pain, has been endemic in the southern states for 35 years, yet little is done to control the aedes mosquito, which causes dengue and chikungunya.

“What can we do? People allow mosquitoes to breed in their backyards and then expect the health department to prevent their being bitten,” grumbles a senior ministry official.

Dr Anupam Sibal, group medical director, Apollo Hospitals, said: “Informing people in time would work, along with starting mosquito-control programmes before the deluge of infection cases arrive. Just informing the masses on how to identify the symptoms and reaching medical help in time can help save hundreds of lives.”