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Beating the bite

They have been going hamlet to hamlet trying to tackle the disease for a month now. 71 deaths later, they could finally be winning.

A mobile medical camp battling malaria in Tripura. Source: Adam Halliday A mobile medical camp battling malaria in Tripura. Source: Adam Halliday

It’s 10 am and scores are already lined up outside the Community Health Centre at Manughat, a town in Tripura’s Dhalai district. Sitting on a plastic chair in the shade of a tree, the medical officer in-charge of the centre, Dr Naresh Tripura, smiles.

He is taking a short break from his thatch-walled, tin-roofed chamber as he tackles one of the worst malaria outbreaks to hit Tripura, in its worst-hit district. After leaving 71 dead and more than 36,000 infected in the state, the disease is finally showing signs of ebbing here. But that’s not the reason Dr Tripura looks relaxed this day.

His arms tucked behind his head, he says, “When I first came here in 1996, it was different. There were still insurgents, and there was always an unofficial curfew once the sun set. There was a meningitis outbreak and we could not go out to conduct medical camps without at least 15 armed policemen or paramilitary personnel.”

The biggest worry weighing on Dr Tripura’s mind today is rain. As his three-member staff gets ready to leave in an old jeep laden with mosquito nets, Dr Tripura glances up at the fast gathering clouds. “If you’re lucky, it won’t rain. If it does, you have to walk.”

The jeep groans to life, spitting a ball of black diesel fumes. After leaving the compound, the medical team turns left for National Highway 44, but is soon off the main road and onto muddy tracks. Their destination is the hamlet of Haranmunipara.

The track is treacherous and the jeep slides several times before they reach the hamlet. It is noon by the time they stop at Haranmunipara’s main square, where headman Maulin Kishore Tripura and his family are waiting for them in the verandah of their house.

The three-member mobile medical camp is one of nearly 2,000 such camps operational in villages across Tripura since the malaria outbreak began on June 10. Several teams fan out every day from community health centres to villages. When it rains heavily, they travel on foot. For even remoter hamlets, the government has arranged for helicopters to ferry medical teams.

As the team unloads the mosquito nets, the village headman helps them put up a banner in Kokborok (the most common tribal language in the state). Men, women and children start gathering and sit on mats on the floor.

Sam Lal Debbarma and Lalthang Darlong, officially designated ‘multi-purpose workers’, put up a small counter with a table and some plastic chairs.

Women holding children line up before Debbarma, who has with him two boxes of German-made On-Site Rapid Test kits. Debbarma calls out the names and one by one, a member of each family steps forward to take a mosquito net. Debbarma asks them several questions, including if any of them has fever or has been feeling uneasy.

Dohinsa, a young man with two children, says his younger one had fever. But when Debbarma asks him to bring his child over to the table for a blood test, Dohinsa looks around and says something in Kokborok, which is met with a supportive murmur.

Darlong explains what is happening: “He says he does not want to go to the hospital because he doesn’t have money.” Darlong assures the crowd that the stay at the hospital and medicines for treatment would be free.

Dohinsa hems and haws, and it is sometime before he finally brings his child for the test. Debbarma pricks a finger of the 5-year-old Dohin Gitarin to draw blood for a test strip. It will take about five minutes for the strip to show results, and by now, others come forward to get their children tested.

A woman who has got a mosquito net spreads it out to check it, and the crowd is impressed at its size. More come forward to get tested now.

Dr Arindam Majumdar, 29, a homeopathy doctor from the Manughat Community Health Centre, looks crestfallen as he examines the test strips. “Hmm… three positive cases,” he says. However, he notes, it is still good news. “The month of June was severe. Now it’s controlled.”

It’s been an hour since the team reached the hamlet. There is a commotion as Debbarma sees a woman leaving. “Hey, you have to get your baby to the hospital. She has malaria,” he yells. The women comes back slowly and consults the headman’s wife.

As they begin wrapping up the camp and loading the leftover nets into the jeep (a dozen remain of the 50 nets they came with), Darlong tells the villagers: “All those who have tested positive come to the hospital. You can come with us in the jeep or on your own.”

Several villages clamber on, but mostly for a lift back to their homes.

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