The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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On day of scourge, another virus runs wild

Saharanpur, Dec. 1: The hastily arranged plastic chairs and a dais in front of the community health centre in Baghpat this morning is just one of similar arrangements across towns in Western Uttar Pradesh for local VIPs to address audiences that will hear them out on World AIDS Awareness Day.

Nothing unusual, for today, indeed, is the day that is being internationally observed to spread knowledge about the scourge. For this sugarcane and Jat country, however, the timing for such an awareness programme could not be worse. An unknown epidemic is raging through the belt.

From Baghpat, just 40-odd km into Uttar Pradesh from Delhi, through Muzaffarnagar, Meerut and Saharanpur districts, children have been dying of an as yet undiagnosed disease. Doctors and administration officials suspect a viral infection, Japanese Encephalitis.

“We cannot call it an epidemic,” said the chief medical officer for Saharanpur, Dr Ghan Shyam Singh. “This morning, only two patients were admitted. Go and have a look in the isolation ward that we have created in the hospital (the district hospital). There aren’t so many patients.”

There are three children in the frugal dormitory that has been designated variously as “isolation” and “encephalitis” ward in the afternoon, two of whom are suspected encephalitis patients. They are seven-year-old Rakiya, daughter of Devender from Nagal village, Imtiaz, son of Yasin from Kotwari block, and Shamli. No surnames. Their condition is heartrending. No parent should be subjected to the agony of even having to be there, in that ward.

Unofficial sources put the toll in the unknown epidemic at 170 in Muzaffarnagar, Saharanpur, Meerut and Baghpat districts. Most of the cases have been reported from Saharanpur district. The district magistrate for Saharanpur, Suresh Chandra, says that since October 13, 44 “cases” — all fatal — have been officially reported by the district hospital and community health centres. All of them children between one and 10 years old, 20 of them between three and five years old.

Chandra and the chief medical officer both refuse to call it an epidemic because the cases are not from one village or block. Each of the children lived in different villages or in different mohallas (localities) of Saharanpur town. In Baghpat, the medical superintendent of the community health centre, Dr R.G. Verma, said five-year-old Kuldeep who was sent to the Guru Tegh Bahadur Hospital, Delhi, from Baghpat, died on November 27.

Shortly before being admitted, Kuldeep, son of Pushpender, who lived in the sugar mill compound in Baghpat town, had visited Guleri village in Saharanpur district for a few days.

Teams of doctors from Lucknow and the National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) in the capital have visited the districts, but even they have not been able to diagnose the ailment. Typically, the children have been brought to hospital with high fever and nausea and their condition has deteriorated in hours.

Ghan Shyam Singh, the CMO, said: “It is likely to be encephalitis but could well be cerebral malaria. Western UP is not known to be encephalitis-ridden, unlike eastern UP, but not all symptoms are similar”.

Dr Kalpana Barua of the NICD, who is in the Saharanpur hospital, said samples of blood were sent for serological tests to Delhi only on Saturday. The authorities have sent 30 samples of human blood and five of pigs' blood. Pigs are said to be hosts of the encephalitis virus.

In Baghpat, Dr Verma said encephalitis is typical in places where basic hygiene is ignored. “Most of the victims are children of Muslim and Harijan families.”

No surnames.

Even the lane that leads to the Baghpat Community Health Centre passes by a pond of stagnant water surrounded by mounds of garbage over which pigs scavenge. Just outside the Saharanpur district hospital, in the busy crossing, piles of garbage mark the corners.

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