The residents of Eluru, a town in Andhra Pradesh’s West Godavari district, have been living in fear over the past week as over 600 people in their neighbourhood were hospitalised due to an unidentified illness. While preliminary studies point towards contamination of food or water with lead a possible cause for the illness, the actual source of contamination is yet to be ascertained.
Between Thursday and Friday, about 40 patients were admitted to the Eluru Government hospital with symptoms courtesy the mysterious illness.
According to reports, researchers from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) have found traces of lead and nickel in the third round of tests conducted on blood samples of the affected people. Experts from the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology (CCMB), Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT) and the National Institute of Nutrition (NIN) are examining water, food, urine and blood samples, while members of the World Health Organisation are monitoring the outbreak.
Meanwhile the Andhra Pradesh government on Friday constituted a 21-member High Level Multi-Disciplinary Committee headed by the state’s chief secretary, with doctors and experts as its members, to investigate the reasons for the illness.
“Both AIIMS and IICT confirmed the presence of lead in blood samples. The cases are falling and patients are recovering quickly. The source of the contamination will become clear soon,” said Dr. Mohan, District Coordinator of Hospital Services in West Godavari.
On December 6, people from 40 different places in Eluru rushed to hospitals across the town with symptoms like epilepsy, memory loss for a few minutes, anxiety, vomiting, headaches and pain in their back. While hundreds of people recovered within hours, doctors were unable to ascertain the cause of the illness. The number of active cases has now fallen to less than 50.
Retired bureaucrat E.A.S. Sharma wrote a letter to Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy, saying lead-coated PVC pipes used for supplying drinking water could be a possible reason for the illness.
“According to the analysis carried out by the officially recognised Quality Council of India (QCI), 33% of the water samples taken in 26 cities in India have indicated high levels of lead. Lead coated PVC pipes used extensively in urban drinking water systems seem to be the major contributor to lead poisoning of water. The water samples thus analysed indicated lead levels to be in excess of the Indian norm of 50 parts per billion, which is in itself a questionable one compared to the WHO norm of 10 parts per billion. Excess lead in the human body can cause neurological problems of the kind observed in Eluru,” Sarma told India Today.
However, the patients were admitted to hospitals in different parts of the town, and had consumed water from different sources. For instance, people consuming ground water and those consuming municipality supplied drinking water have reportedly fallen ill in the last week.
State government officials have confirmed that laboratory tests found that the drinking water supplied by the municipality was free of any traces of heavy metal.
“We don’t know how we contracted this disease. Everybody is saying this is because of the water. I am not the only one drinking the water. There are little children also in my home. If it was because of water, then everybody should get it. Nobody is able to tell why it has happened,” said 26-year old Sri Hima Bindhu to the news agency IANS. She is a resident of JP Colony, where over 40 people have fallen ill with symptoms resembling epileptic fits.
Test reports of the NIN are crucial, since samples of urine, blood, water, vegetables, fruits and milk are being examined for traces of heavy metals and pesticides.