AMID THE Covid-19 fear, Eluru, a town in West Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh with a population of over 3 lakhs, has been left shaken by a “mystery” illness that has affected over 500 people since Saturday evening. In most cases, the symptoms were the same: seizures, followed by loss of consciousness; and the recovery was quick — they were ready to be discharged within a couple of hours.
State Health Minister A K Krishna Srinivas said of the 510 people who were affected, 430 had been discharged. One death has been reported so far. “I am appealing to people not to panic. The number of patients has come down; less than 40 were reported today. I know people are scared. We are trying to understand what caused it,” he said.
Health officials suspect food or water contamination. A preliminary report by a team from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, has found traces of lead and nickel in some blood samples.
“The sample size that we sent to AIIMS was small, but their report indicates the presence of heavy metals like lead and nickel. We have sent more samples and the reports are awaited,” said Dr A V Mohan, superintendent of Eluru Government Hospital.
“The seizures indicate neurological issues. The possibility of heavy metal contamination will be investigated,” said a scientist from the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN), Hyderabad.
A multi-disciplinary team from NIN comprising public health experts, epidemiologists, microbiologists and food safety experts, led by Dr J J Babu Geddam, head of the clinical epidemiology division, is collecting samples of water, edible oil and rice.
What is worrying is that the illness is not confined to a particular area. “If it was water or air-borne, people in a particular area would be affected. However, almost the entire Eluru is affected in this case. In most cases, only one member of the family was affected, which is also puzzling,” said the NIN scientist.
“Almost all the affected persons are from urban Eluru, from about 70 per cent of the town area. Eluru rural and the nearby areas have not been affected. Water samples taken on Sunday were not contaminated, but health officials are going back to these areas to check water and food sources,” said a health official.
Those who suffered seizures have been left scared and shaken. V Ganesh, 24, a resident of Dakshina Veedhi, said he was afraid of being alone now. “At around 7 am on Sunday, my parents and I were seeing off some relatives. The next thing I remember is waking up at the government hospital at around 11 am. My father says I had a seizure and collapsed. But I was fine by 1 pm, and returned home. I was lucky that my parents were nearby. Now I am afraid to be alone, what if it recurs and there is nobody to help,” he said.
Shakila Begum, 26, a resident of Ashok Nagar, said five members of her family fell sick within a few hours on Monday afternoon. “My seven-year-old son vomited after lunch. I gave him a bath and seated him on a chair, but he collapsed immediately. He vomited again and was having a seizure. I remember calling my husband but I too fell unconscious after that. I woke up in an ambulance. Within the next few hours, three other members of our family fell sick in the same way. We think it has something to do with the water because it happened after drinking water or taking a bath,” she said. “We are all very scared and worried. I have been having body ache since then. What if it happens again?” she said.
Kiran Kumar, 44, a police constable of Eluru III Town Police Station, was on duty on Monday when he had a seizure. “I am fit and healthy and I don’t have any addictions. I remember being on duty, and a few hours later, I woke up at the government hospital. My colleagues told me I shouted something and collapsed. My right shoulder was injured as I fell on the road. I was in a semi-conscious state for about two hours. I was fine after that and returned home. The experience left me shaken, I am feeling weak now,” he said.
V Rama Krishna, a school teacher living in Padamatha colony, said his neighbours left for their village after a boy living nearby had a seizure.
“Most of the patients suffered genuine epileptic seizures. Some people are saying that it is mass hysteria, but it isn’t. Many of the patients came in with minor head injuries or a black eye as they collapsed suddenly. But most of them were ready to be discharged within a couple of hours,” said Dr A S Ram, nodal officer at the Eluru Government Hospital. Many patients complained of gastric problems or abdominal pain after the seizures.
Dr Ram said the number of patients has gone down since Monday evening. “On Tuesday, there weren’t many patients. The discharge rate is also high. Within two or three hours, most of them are ready to go home,” he said.
Meanwhile, Chief Minister Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy has sought a probe into the presence of lead and nickel particles in some blood samples. “An Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) team is also running tests and the results are awaited. The Chief Minister has sought a probe into how the lead and nickel particles were present in the affected area and how they entered the bodies of the affected persons,’’ said a statement from the Chief Minister’s Office.
Health experts from AIIMS (Delhi), National Institute of Virology (Pune), and the Centre for Disease Control (Delhi) held meetings with state officials on Tuesday and interacted with patients.
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