Plagueing policies

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Thursday 30 November 1995

IT is now a year since the infamous Surat outbreak, which focussed the world's attention on the state of India's health conditions. It damaged India's reputation and made many Indians feel ashamed. Our neighbours, of course, took every possible opportunity, with or without any scientific basis, to rub India's face into the dirt. Indian planes and mail were debarred and travellers to these nations were asked to cool their heels for days.

The media had castigated India for its dirt and filth. India Today had also carried a cover story on the sea of urban rubbish. But it is amazing that the true lessons of the Surat episode have hardly ever surfaced and created on public policy or the public mind. Even worse, everybody now seems to be quite somnolent about the entire issue.

From what I gather, the key lesson here is ecological. Urban filth is a favourable habitat for rodents and our cities have to be cleaned. But in Surat, the causative chain leading to the pneumonic plague outbreak appears to have Y-een @qu i erent. A World Health Organization (WHO) alert issued on September 26, 1994 had pointed out that ecological disturbances caused by the Latur earthquake may have been behind the Beed outbreak. The WHO had noted that sometimes as a result of earthquakes, tunnels and burrows of wild rodents are destroyed, forcing them to migrate to inhabited areas. These often hit the granaries in adjacent villages and towns, where they interact with domestic rodents.

An interesting example is former South Vietnam. Over the last 20 years, WHO's annual plague incidence data shows that Vietnam suffers the highest regular incidence of the scourge. And it is believed that due to the massive destruction of forests during the us military's anti-Viet Cong opaations in the '60s, large numbers of wild rats had been displaced. These sought refuge in and around human settlements, passing on plague to their urban cousins, and finally to humans.

And even the world's technologically most advanced nation, usA, has learnt that once the bacillus homes in on rat populations, there is precious little a country can do but to monitor rodents regularly and undertake rapid detection, diagnosis and treatment. Uptil the turn of the century, USA was reportedly plague-free. Then, when large numbers of Asian workers were encouraged to come and work on development projects, a Chinese migrant apparently brought the bacillus to the south-west coast. Plague is now present in much of the rodent population in Western USA, Mexico and Canada. And despite all the cleanliness of human settlements in the country, the southwest coast reports about 15 cases of plague annually, and about 15 per cent mortality.

India's leading rodentologist, Ishwar Prakash, has been warning people for a long time that the changing rural ecology is making the country more susceptible to plague. The spread of irrigation increases food production and provides a better habitat for rodents. As dry areas turn into irrigated regions, the composition of the rodent population can also change, which can sometimes be worse from the plague point of view.

Way back in 1985, he had held Sunita Naram and me enthralled with his vast knowledge on the changing ecology of rodent pop- ulations, and how he believed that the Thar desert is becoming increasingly susceptible to the spread of the bacillus. But how much attention have we paid in the past, or are we paying now, to the knowledge of such experts?

Since plague eradication is impossible - simply because it is impossible to exterminate rat populations - keeping a watch on wild and domestic rodents, therefore, becomes a critical aspect of plague control.

And yet the solution is so simple. Almost every science college, even at the district level, has a zoology department. Students and teachers can be mobilised to keep track of rat populations through regular urban and rural rat studies as part of their curriculum.

The students will learn and, in turn, they will serve the nation. But the trouble is that the nation's attention, including that of its government and its media, has such an unbelievably short time-span, that be it a flood, drought or a plague epidemic, once the immediate problem is over everybody forgets about it. It's truly sad that a nation which cannot forget its caste system for thousands of years can forget its immediate and ongoing problems so easily. Why are we so serious as a people about how women and children must behave in the household, and yet so nonchalant about issues of public policy? I would truly like to know from our readers what views they have on this.

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