Encephalitis returns to haunt Assam

Published: Saturday 31 August 2002

japanese encephalitis has claimed more than 100 lives in Assam recently. But more than the disease, official apathy and poor preventive measures are responsible for the deaths. Because, though the disease is an annual occurrence, the state authorities have been unable to devise adequate measures to combat the disease.

Unofficial figures, say that more than 170 people succumbed to the disease. Around 300 people suffering from encephalitis were admitted to Assam Medical college, Dibrugarh, reveals Nandita Chaudhury, principal of the college. At present eight districts of Assam are affected, out of which Dibrugarh and Golaghat, are the worst hit. The disease is caused by a virus, which is transmitted through the Culex tritaeniorhyncus mosquito. The larva multiplies rapidly in stagnant water and in rice fields. Says, Chaudhary, "Areas with thick forests, high humidity levels and rainfall are perfect breeding grounds for the larva." The disease usually occurs in the upper regions of the state where the terrain is conducive to the growth of the vector. People living in close proximity to livestock are more vulnerable to the disease. Livestock is an alternative host for the virus, which is transmitted to human beings by mosquitoes.

Last year, around 160 people had succumbed to the disease. But the authorities have not learnt a lesson. Hassan Ali, secretary, ministry of health and family welfare, Assam says with characteristic official insouciance: "As the disease occurs suddenly, it is difficult to execute the control measures." The only step the government is taking at present is educating people about the disease and increasing the number of fogging machines to spray insect repellents. All these measures ironically are short-term and will not help combat the disease in the long run.

Experts say Japanese encephalitis can be controlled through vaccination but the government has not taken any concrete steps in this direction. "We also need serological test labs in the state for early detection of the disease," says S K Kakoti, assistant director, malaria cell, directorate general of health services, Assam.

According to Kiran Dambalkar, chief medical officer at the National Anti Malaria Programme (namp), New Delhi, a team of experts has been sent to the affected areas to help the state authorities control the encephalitis epidemic.

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