Bhopal: 38 years later, fungal diseases rise among survivors in telling sign of flawed healthcare

Over the last 20 years, 1,175 cases were recorded, of which 670 were from the last five years alone, per the records of Sambhavna Clinic  

By Seema Prasad
Published: Saturday 03 December 2022
The fungal infections will add to the long list of illnesses already present among survivors.
The fungal infections will add to the long list of illnesses already present among survivors. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE The fungal infections will add to the long list of illnesses already present among survivors. Photo: Vikas Choudhary / CSE

This story has been updated

The leakage of 27 tonnes of deadly methyl isocyanate (MIC) gas from the pesticide plant owned by Union Carbide Corporation in Bhopal 38 years ago is still wreaking havoc on the city. The latest is the spike in incidences of fungal infection among survivors, according to the Sambhavna Trust.

The fungal infections will add to the long list of illnesses already present among survivors. These include problems with the respiratory tract, neurological system, psychological problems, increased incidences of cancer, blindness, birth defects and growth impairments.

The illnesses are due to the accumulation of toxic material in the soil and groundwater over the years after the leakage that had instantly killed over 3,000 people.

The Indian Council of Medical Research had projected that till 2009, 23,000 deaths may have occurred, but the numbers vary and are a topic of debate.

Fungal infections

The Sambhavna Trust is one of the primary organisations that assists Bhopal gas survivors with medical treatment and research.

Ringworm disease, caused by a fungus called tinea, is on the rise. Red itchy patches occur in the groin, on the head or in different places of the body. The rash spreads if left untreated. Yeast infection candida albicans is also being reported to the Sambhavna Clinic by female survivors.

The Sambhavna Clinic recorded 174 cases of fungal infection in 2021. This number was 36 in 2011 and 1 in 2002.

Read Down To Earth’s coverage of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy

Some 1,175 cases were recorded over the last 20 years, of which 670 were from the last five years alone. Most of these were treatment-resistant, founder and managing trustee Satinath Sarangi told Down To Earth.

Different doctors treat those suffering from tinea with antifungal creams, ointments and tablets such as Itracanazole, Clotrimazole, and Flucanazole indiscriminately.

Top skin specialists in the city as well as poor health centres over prescribed these medications. Usually, there have been cases of Itracanazole no longer working as the patients have become resistant, according to Sarangi.

“We see this very often with urinary tract infection. When an antibiotic is overused, the micro-organism changes and mutates, and cannot get killed by the same agent. Which is when the antibiotic is changed,” he added.

MIC caused multi-systemic damage and one of the systems that was damaged was the immune system.

Source: Sambhavna Clinic

“So much so that Dr Neil Anderson of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who carried out research on the impact of the disaster called it the ‘chemical AIDS’. Just as you have immune deficiency caused by AIDS, this is caused by chemicals. Because of that, Bhopal survivors are prone to get infectious diseases, either by bacteria, virus or fungi,” Sarangi said.

This is similarly the case with sexually transmitted diseases suffered by women, according to the Trust.

Gas-exposed women were two or three times more likely to suffer from infectious gynaecological diseases such as pelvic inflammatory disease and cervicitis as compared to unexposed patients who came for treatment between January and August 2022.

“In response to the antibiotic-resistant ringworm infection in the immune-compromised gas -exposed population, we started looking for alternative treatments in our garden. After some research, we concocted an oil using the cactus plant, Euphorbia Neriifolia. Microbial tests in our laboratory confirmed this,” Ankit Mishra, an ayurveda pharmacist with the Sambhavna Clinic told DTE.

Medicines are made from these plant materials in the Clinic’s medical and manufacturing unit.

Sarangi however stressed that he does not endorse the view that ayurvedic medication is a cure-all treatment. He added that it must be combined with modern medicine, especially when conventional medicine fails to work.

The Clinic has been operational since 1996 and is located close to the Union Carbide factory. It claims to have catered to over 36,000 people exposed to toxic gas and contaminated groundwater.

Sarangi, also an activist with the Bhopal Group for Information and Action (BGIA), told DTE that even today, medical care offered by the government is not tailored for the specific kind of problems that the Bhopal gas survivors have.

What is seen in the government hospitals meant for gas victims is the indiscriminate prescription of antibiotics, painkillers, steroids and psychotropic medications, according to the activist.

On November 28, 40 members of the UK Parliament signed on to Early Day Motion, which are debate proposals submitted to the House of Commons.

The move is aimed at bringing Dow Chemicals, the company that acquired Union Carbide, to justice. The motion was moved by Navendu Mishra, a Labour MP of Indian origin.

Rachna Dhingra of the BGIA, said in a press statement, “Earlier, Mishra secured a debate in the UK Parliament over issues of justice, remediation of contaminated lands and adequate compensation for the victims.”

Mishra’s efforts resulted in the UK Minister of State in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office Anne-Marie Trevelyan, to commit to raise issues of Bhopal with her Indian counterparts during ongoing discussions on trade and cooperation, Dhingra added.

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