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Explainer: Mystery illness that hospitalised hundreds in India

By Reuters | December 10th 2020 at 17:35:01 GMT +0300

A doctor examines a young patient lying in a hospital bed at an Eluru hospital, after hundreds of people were hospitalised due to an unknown illness in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh, India. [Reuters]

One person has died and nearly 600 have been hospitalised since Saturday in a southern Indian state due to a mysterious infection that caused many to fall unconscious after suffering giddiness, seizures and nausea.

What exactly happened?

The first patients were admitted to hospital on Saturday in Eluru, a town in Andhra Pradesh state.

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By Sunday, according to the federal health ministry, there were more than 200 people hospitalised, suffering dizziness, headache and vomiting. Patients including children and women fainted, and that evening a 45-year-old man died.

By Wednesday, the number of patients had jumped nearly three-fold.

As of Thursday, over 85 per cent of the patients had been discharged.

The cause of their illness has yet to be identified. Tests ruled out Covid-19 infection.

What are the potential causes?

Eluru is home to over 200,000 people and is known for its weaving industry.

Investigations have focused on whether the illness could be linked to some groundwater contamination, excessive use of pesticides or mass application of chlorine as part of a coronavirus disinfection drive.

Doctors have also found traces of lead and nickel in the blood samples of some patients. The elevated lead levels could have been a trigger, especially as the levels appeared to drop among patients a day after hospitalisation, doctors say.

The state government says officials are also checking if dumping or burning of used batteries could have caused the illness, without elaborating further.

They are also testing the area’s drinking water and milk samples.

A senior health official has also said exposure to organochlorides found in pesticides and used in mosquito control could be a potential cause.

What are the effects of exposure to lead or chlorine?

High levels of lead in the bloodstream can impair the development of brains, nervous systems and vital organs such as the heart and lungs.

Organochlorides are banned or restricted in many countries after research linked them to cancer and other health risks. It was not immediately clear how extensively the chemicals are used in India, though they are found in DDT used in mosquito control.

World Health Organization experts are surveying neighbourhoods in and around Eluru, collecting various information, including on food sources.

Health authorities are running various tests and the state’s chief minister has promised corrective measures once investigations are completed.

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