Way back in 2001, a mysterious fever had taken away lives in Siliguri town, in the plains of North Bengal, triggering panic. Laboratory investigations couldn’t identify the infectious agent and doctors named it the ‘Siliguri fever’. It was not till 2006 that it was identified as Nipah virus. One year later, it would strike another West Bengal district, Nadia. The Siliguri outbreak is now known as the first incident of Nipah in India. Among those who died in the outbreak — the official toll was 49 — that lasted a month, between January 21 and February 23, were doctors, nurses and staff at the hospitals where the patients were admitted.
“At the time, 25 per cent of the population of Siliguri had fled in fear,” says Siliguri Mayor Ashok Bhattacharya, who had been the urban development minister in the Left Front government then.
He recalls how they struggled to control the spread. “The outbreak began at a single hospital and spread to three other hospitals. Out of the 66 patients admitted as per records, five left treatment midway signing a risk bond. Almost 75 per cent of the patients were either hospital staff or those who had attended to or visited patients in hospital,” he says.
Dr N B Debnath, who was posted at the North Bengal Medical College in Siliguri, where all the patients were later referred, says, “There was lack of any specific treatment as it was still a mystery. Doctors provided supporting therapy and waited for the patient’s immune system to fight the virus.”
Dr Debnath, who retired last year, calls it “one of the biggest challenges of my career”. To decipher the disease, a team of physicians and epidemiologists from the National Institute of Virology, Pune, virologists from Ahmedabad and World Health Organisation officials had visited Siliguri, the hospitals where the patients were kept, the towns from which they had been referred, and also their homes.
“A team of virologists were so nervous that they suggested that North Bengal Medical College be emptied of all patients besides those suffering from Nipah, as well as of hospital staff, to stop the virus from spreading. The Siliguri Corporation started cleanliness drives, drains were cleaned, and roads washed. Several doctors who tried to leave Siliguri were brought back, with our people keeping a watch at the railway station and (Bagdogra) airport,” says Bhattacharya.
“Slowly the virus died its own death,” he adds. “There was no death after February 23.”