A killer stalks Siliguri

Messing around with the environment has led to the emergence of new and deadly diseases

Published: Saturday 31 March 2001

In all 35 people have died and now the authorities in Siliguri say it is due to a mutated form of measles. When 10 staffers died in a local hospital it was supposed to be encephalitis or a new form of malaria. In short the authorities have sent samples for testing to the us but are still groping in the dark in India.

Unfortunately mystery diseases are not new. Emergent disease episodes have increased. Nearly all have involved zoonotic or species-jumping infectious agents. Emergence of these new pathogens seems to be accelerating for several reasons. But to a great extent are responsible the ecological and environmental changes wrought about by human activity. Contributing to the spread of these mystery diseases is the capacity of microorganisms to adapt to extremely diverse econiches.

The classic example is the emergence of yellow fever when humans moved in to the Central American jungle to build the Panama Canal. The Brazilian woodcutters who cleared the Amazonian forests were attacked by the Mayaro and Oropouche virus infections. Cities in the tropics with their lack of sanitary facilities are hotspots for infections. Even global warming -- though data on this is inconclusive -- can affect sea level rise, estuarine systems and freshwater swamps as well as human habitation patterns may also affect vector-virus relationships. India is no stranger to this and has witnessed the outbreak of the Kyasanur Forest Disease in 1956 and a new outbreak has occurred in Chikmaglaur this year.

The disease that has struck Siliguri is as mysterious as the Ebola virus in Africa or the hanta virus, which authorities in Siliguri first mistook it for. However one thing is certain if new diseases are emerging it is due to the fact that the environment is degrading and so is our healthcare system. Both complex and new diseases will continue to emerge and clean water, clean air and a healthy environment are the only way to combat these. A lesson that only sustainable development is sustainable in the long run.

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.