Alcohol, superstition take a toll on tribals in Odisha villages
Two months ago, Muka Talam, a tribal in Odisha’s Benchnpalli village, complained of swelling of hands and belly. He died a few days later unable to eat anything. Like him, Bata Ganga and Jogendra Bata of the same village, too, showed similar symptoms before they died. After them, Ganga Bata and Beti Lachha, all in the age group of 35-50 died, while about 8-10 other villagers showed symptoms of swollen feet and stomach, loss of appetite, and acute weakness.
As locals complained of a mysterious disease killing the villagers, health officials from the district headquarters of Malkangiri, who visited Benchanpalli to probe the deaths, on Friday said there was no mystery. “It is mostly... alcoholism leading to kidney and liver problems. In two cases of deaths, the deceased had cancer and stroke,” said Dr PK Nanda, chief district medical officer, Malkangiri.
Nanda said the deaths happened because villagers consulted a Dishari, or a local witchdoctor, first and then went to the local primary health centre. “Most of them consume local brew laced with urea for a better kick. Over a period, this proves lethal for them,” he said. “We have sent the sample of the alcohol that the villagers consumed to the State Forensic Science Laboratory in Bhubaneswar to ascertain the composition. We are waiting for the report.”
Two months ago, around 10 Koya tribals died after showing similar symptoms in Sodiguda village. Between February and June, about a dozen deaths were reported from Kenduguda village under Malkangiri block. Many of those who died complained of swollen legs and stomach. Villagers said that most of those who died did not even have the strength to walk or stand properly and suffered acute respiratory problems.
Doctors in Malkangiri said the deaths in Sodiguda and Bapanpalli were mostly due to alcoholism and the unwillingness of the tribals to go to local health centres fearing Covid-19. “As it is most of the villages are situated at least 10 km away from the nearest health centres and travelling is not easy. Now because of Covid, many tribals are avoiding going there,” said a doctor.
Experts said apart from alcoholism, anaemia is also a reason for the deaths. As per the 2015-16 National Family Health Survey, at least 47.2% of men in the age group of 15 and 49 years in Malkangiri were anaemic. For women in the same age group, the percentage was 71.3.
“With such a high anaemic population, do you expect the villagers to have any immunity. The deaths have happened in the tribal villages where malnutrition and undernourishment are acute,” said Durga Tripathy of Harmony, a Malkangiri based NGO.
Officials called vacancies of doctors in primary and community health centres a major stumbling block in providing health services. Of the 197 posts of doctors, only 91 have been filled up so far. The entire district has only one eye specialist while there are just five gynaecologists.
“We would also start a drive to make the tribals aware of the ill-effects of using adulterants in the country liquor,” said Malkangiri district collector Manish Agarwal.