A cholera outbreak has ravaged Orissa's tribal-dominated Kalahandi, Koraput and Rayagada districts since early August. The state government says
the region has reported 119 deaths so far. About 6,000 people have been treated for cholera and other stomach diseases.
The state's disease surveillance unit says, however, "not all the deaths are due to cholera infection. Tests conducted on 43 samples collected from patients in the affected villages show the presence of cholera bacteria (Vibrio cholerae) only in 31 cases."
"The Orissa government is using the term 'gastroenteritis' to cover up deaths due to cholera," says Bijoy Mohapatra, chief of the Orissa Gana Parishad, a regional political party.More than 250 people have died of cholera by the first week of September, says Sanhati, a federation of 65 ngos working in the state. "The state government is under-reporting the death toll to minimise the amount of compensation to be paid out to families of the deceased," it says. The state government has announced compensation of Rs 10,000 to the families of the deceased. Sanhati carried out a quick survey in the affected region between August 31 and September 3.
Senior leaders of the opposition Congress, on the other hand, claim the death toll is more than 500. Former chief minister Giridhar Gamang and Orissa Congress Party president Jayadev Jena, who toured Koraput's Dasmantpur block on August 30, said the block reported 200 death cases by the end of August.
They were critical about the poor health infrastructure in the region. According to local media reports, when the disease broke out, Rayagada's Kashipur block had only four doctors as against the requirement of 12, and Dasmantpur had three instead of 11. The blocks are the worst affected off all.
Residents of these blocks allege that the outbreak though began in early July, the administration responded to it not before the third week of August. The district collector of Rayagada, Bhaskar Jyoti Sharma, says "We came to know about the outbreak on August 23, and provided immediate healthcare facilities. Only six people have succumbed to the illness since then... The situation is under control now." The district administration of Rayagada puts the death toll at 58. Apart from the administration's lackadaisical attitude, lack of safe drinking water and the absence of doctors in the initial weeks reportedly aggravated the situation.
Government health officials, however, blame the outbreak on the recent floods, followed by incessant rains. Outbreak of the disease was caused by people drinking contaminated water from streams and ponds that were polluted by the floods. They have eaten rotten food and seasonal mushrooms, officials say.
They also blame the situation on superstition prevalent among people in these tribal-dominated areas who depend on witchcraft and quacks. "The local administration faced initial constraints to contain the outbreak, since the tribals were not willing to get treated in hospitals," says Chinmay Basu, health secretary of the state. "With the help of panchayat functionaries, they are being forcibly taken to hospitals." he says.
ngos working in the region, however, say diarrhoea and cholera outbreaks are rampant here. "On an average about 50 people die in the region every year," says Bidyadhar Choudhry, a local scribe.
"It's a human-made failure that recurs every year," says Bimal Pandia of the Water Initiative Orissa. "In Kashipur alone, more than 40 per cent of households do not have access to safe drinking water, while 23 per cent have only restricted access to it," says Pandia. Even Talijhiri village in Rayagada, which the chief minister visited soon after the media broke the cholera news, faces a grim situation. "Of five tube wells in the village only one functions; the rest are lying defunct since ages," says Pandia.
A recent report of the Centre for Environment and Food Security (cefs), New Delhi, also underlines the poor drinking water and sanitary facilities in the state. "It is not the epidemic of cholera but cancer of corruption that is killing hundreds of poor adivasis...[in Orissa]," notes cefs.
To contain further spread of the disease and ensure uninterrupted medical services to people, the authorities have put up mobile health units in remote villages. The outbreak is slowly coming under control, they say, and the death toll has not gone up beyond 119 since the first week of September.
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