India’s Mystery Illness

Almost exactly a month ago, a ‘mystery illness’ was reported in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh. On the 5th December, more than 500 people were rushed to hospital in the town of Eluru, which has a population of around 250,000. Those taken ill displayed symptoms that included a loss of consciousness, dizziness, nausea, epileptic fits, loss of short-term memory and sharp pains in the muscles of the back and neck. Although the majority of those affected were soon discharged, according to the BBC nineteen patients were moved to other hospitals for continuing treatment, and at least one person is known to have died. Medical professionals were unable to identify the cause behind the sudden and debilitating symptoms that characterised this ‘mystery illness’. 

Unsurprisingly, in an international climate still very much in the grip of the current global pandemic, reports of a strange new disease that felt reminiscent of those from Wuhan last year caused widespread anxiety both in and out of India. Andhra Pradesh ranks third in terms of Indian states worst hit by Covid 19 with over 800,000 reported cases. India as a whole has around 10 million cases and, despite the government’s plans to immunise around 300 million people by July, globally ranks only behind the United States in terms of the highest number of confirmed cases of coronavirus. 

However, despite anxieties surrounding a potential link to Covid 19, and even speculation that this mysterious disease heralded the beginning of a new pandemic, state health minister Alla Kali Krishna Srinivas was quick to confirm that the patients hospitalised had all tested negative for coronavirus. On the 7th December he revealed that there was, in fact, no evidence of any viral infection in blood samples taken from those affected. 

What the patients’ blood samples did reveal were unusually high levels of lead and nickel. The multi-disciplinary panel of the state government, central government team and experts from the World Health Organisation sent to investigate the causes behind the hospitalisations have yet to publish their official reports. However, their findings indicate that responsibility for the ‘mystery illness’ lies with pesticides. Traces of lead and nickel have also been found in milk and vegetables in Eluru and scientists have suggested that it was the contamination of food with organochlorine pesticide residue that caused such a sudden outbreak of inexplicable symptoms on the 5th December. 

According to The Telegraph, the Medical Superintendent at Eluru’s district hospital, Dr AVR Mohan, has said that while they ‘are yet to establish the source of the infection’, the current conclusion is that ‘it must have come from some pesticides or toxic chemicals sprayed in the area, which has contaminated the food taken by patients’. Farmers in this region of India have been known to use a greater volume of pesticides on crops than across the rest of the country. Tragically, if this is confirmed to be the cause of the recent hospitalisations, it would not be the first case of fatalities as a result of exposure to organochlorine in India. In 2013, 25 children in the state of Bihar died after consuming food contaminated with the pesticide. The opposition party, Telugo Desam, has called for an inquiry into the incident in Andhra Pradesh, condemning the possible contamination. Controversially, the use of the pesticide organochlorine is not regulated in India. There is to be further expert investigation into food and water in Eluru over the coming months, and conclusive findings as to the exact cause of the symptoms exhibited by its citizens in December have yet to be published. 

Once it was established that India’s ‘mystery disease’ was in no way associated with Covid 19, and that it was not a contagious virus with potential to evolve into another pandemic, the intensity of its international media attention lessened. However, with a July 2020 study by the University of Illinois estimating that 3 million people are exposed to dangerous levels of organophosphates every year, resulting in around 300,000 deaths, perhaps pesticide contamination should be something that we are more aware of.

Image credit: Srikanth D via UnSplash

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