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Virus isolation ward with a view
- Queries over hospital’s war on sars

Outside the windows of the Beleghata Infectious Diseases Hospital’s isolation ward on the ground floor, a crowd gathers ominously. It’s Tuesday afternoon at Bengal’s sole designated isolation centre, where two Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) suspects and one victim are admitted.

Several windowpanes are missing, leaving the ward effectively ‘open-air’ and the patients free to pop their heads out. Asked about the state of his health by reporters calling in from outside, SARS sufferer Radheyshyam Gupta was able to open the shutters and lean out, saying: “I’m fine, I’m fine.” SARS suspect Jamil Ahmed, confined to the same ward, was said to be in a more “serious” condition.

Local residents are scared. “This is very worrying,” says S. Sen. “We are angry that the victim’s family is coming to bring him meals, along with cutlery and utensils, and is then being allowed to take the utensils home after he has used them. This is shocking.”

The grubby dark corridors are swarming with flies in the heat. Men lie in the corridors between wards, rubbish is piling up in almost every corner and alcove, the fields around are strewn with rubbish, and kids are playing amidst the scattered junk. Black crows and scavengers pick at the trash.

At Block G, people crowd around the entrance. Patients, families with their babies, vagrants and destitute mill around, and spill out onto the grounds. Security, despite protestations of special police posting, is lax. People are free to roam from ward to ward, and hang around at its entrances. Kids outside congregate on bicycles, hitching up their shirts to cover their faces.

The building is dilapidated and crumbling, and pools of standing water collect in the corridors. Sanitary conditions are poor, and a sense of neglect and deprivation is palpable. The walls are peeling. Cobwebs hang from the wires. Patients suffering from cholera, malaria, diphtheria, typhoid and hepatitis lie sweating under ceiling fans churning the same air over and over.

Calcutta’s first confirmed SARS patient Asitabha Purakayastha tested positive for the virus on Saturday. With new cases rising daily worldwide, the respiratory disease, for which there is no known cure, has now claimed a toll of over 330, with a total of 5,500 people affected in 29 nations. In a city as densely populated as Calcutta, the outbreak could quickly turn catastrophic.

A few days ago, ID Hospital principal Pushpa Maitra had admitted to her fears that the virus could spread. “I am quite anxious,” she had told Metro, adding: “We are following all WHO guidelines to treat SARS patients.”

But West Bengal’s director of medical education C.R. Maity denied any “anxiety” over what the future has in store, insisting that the leadership is taking the necessary steps to equip the hospital for a possible outbreak. He insists that the state’s only SARS-designated hospital is adequately equipped to meet the threat. “We have installed ventilators, pulse oxymeters and cardiac monitors in the isolation room. The government of West Bengal has made all the necessary arrangements to treat patients in the intensive care units,” announces Maity. Calcutta, for its own sake, must hope he is right.

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