It is not just a stubborn, multi-drug resistant form of tuberculosis that patients admitted to the Sewri TB hospital have to battle against every day -- rather, it's full-fledged war between man and beast at the civic-run facility. Daily at the hospital, end-stage TB patients -- weakened by their prolonged battle with the disease -- have to wage a veritable struggle with the 45-strong cat army, for basic resources like food and bed space. While the stray cats expose the patients of end-stage TB, already low on immunity, to a variety of diseases, the feline population continues to grow from strength to strength, fed by the apathy of the hospital officials, who claim that all their attempts to put an end to the menace have been in vain.
'Cat'ch them if you can: The cats often climb onto the beds of the patients. Doctors have said that sustained proximity to stray felines exposes the immuno-compromised TB patients to various diseases like cat scratch disease and Psittacosis. Pic/Priyanka Vora
Fat cats According to the hospital staffers, as many as 45 cats have made the hospital wards their safe haven, where they live like kings. On any given day, they can be seen sprawled on the floor contentedly, sometimes climbing into the patients' beds for a snug nap. But make no mistake, these are no domesticated pussies who will purr and cuddle on your lap for some petting. They are aggressive creatures who have free rein over the premises, and banquet like royalty, feasting on the high-protein diet provided to the emaciated TB patients at the hospital. The patients have to take their meals cautiously, and under the steady gaze of the felines, who often pounce on them and make away with the food.
"These cats sleep in the hospital wards, and often leap onto the hospital beds, even as patients repose on them. Cats are commonplace in public hospitals, but the numbers here are alarming," said a hospital staffer. He added confidentially that a cat had even scratched a ward boy, a few days back.
The TB hospital in Sewri has about 1,000 beds within its precincts, spread out over 18 wards, 13 of which are functional. At any given time, the wards at the hospital have about 85 per cent occupancy. Only sputum-positive TB patients are admitted to this facility, most of them battling a severe and potentially incurable multi-drug resistant type of the disease.
Raining cats & cats A nurse from the hospital, said, "Things routinely spiral out of control when we serve food to the patients. Since the TB patients have extremely low levels of immunity and are administered strong drugs, they need to be kept on a protein-rich diet. So we serve them eggs and milk. When the cats spot the milk they go into a frenzy, and jump and lunge for the milk. Many of our patients have been scratched badly trying to keep the creatures at bay."
"Whenever I bring fish for my patient, we have to guard him as he eats it. The cats will congregate in front of his bed, with their eyes glued to his plate. There have been instances when the cats have fled with the food bags," said a patient's relative.
Admitting to the feline menace in the hospital, Dr Rajendra Nanavare, medical superintendent of the hospital, said, "It is true that there are too many cats in the hospital. We have planned to fix grills in wards 5, 6 and 7. Most of the cats populate these wards, and they have many windows and doors."
A security officer said, "The hospital is fringed by slums on three sides, and it is impossible for the guards to secure every inch of the premises from these agile creatures, which wriggle in silently through cracks and crevasses." One of the only available options to curb the burgeoning feline population is sterilisation, but infrastructural lacunae for feline sterilisation have made even this last bastion impossibile. Nanavare said, "A few months back, we arranged for a survey to take stock of the situation. The man we hired suggested sterilisation. We need Rs 1,000 to sterilise each cat, but the BMC does not allocate any funds for feline sterilisation, like it does for canine sterilisation. Even after sterilisation, these cats will be brought back here. What will we do with them then?"
Doc's take Dr Pratit Samdani, physician, Breach Candy hospital, said, "Zoonotic diseases are diseases caused by infectious agents that can be transmitted between animals and humans. One such disease is Psittacosis. Sustained proximity to stray cats can even lead humans to develop respiratory problems and the dreaded Cat Scratch Disease, which can cause high fever. Pet animals are groomed, cleaned at regular intervals, and given shots -- this prevents them from contracting harmful bacteria and spreading them to humans they come in contact with. But the case is different for stray cats. More importantly, TB patients are immunity-compromised, and they can fall prey to the slightest of infections. TB patients should avoid contact with stray felines at all cost." Human rights v/s animal rights Human Rights activist Dr Binay Mahrana said, "This is a human rights violation, as it is clearly creating a problem for the patients. The cats are roaming free in the hospital because of the unhygienic conditions in the premises, improper cleaning or waste disposal. A Human Rights body should intervene and rescue the patients from this hazardous situation. We all know that TB patients have poor immunity, and it is unpardonable to make them share space with stray cats."
Animals rights activists, have a different point to make. Sunish Subramanian, secretary of the Plant and Animals Welfare Society said, "As per the animal birth control rules, stray animals after sterilisation must be restored to the spot they were picked up from. In this hospital, the cats are habituated to the wards, and it would be cruel to uproot them from their habitat. Evicting the cats and dispossessing them from their home is tantamount to a violation of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act. Moreover, no government body allocates funds for the sterilisation of cats. In order to curb the menace, the hospital administration will have to pay between Rs 800-1,000 for each cat. It is difficult for them to find funding for this."
Lt Col (Dr) JC Khanna, secretary and officer-in-charge of the BSPCA animal hospital said, "The government has no programme in place for control of the stray-feline population. So funding is always a problem. At a time, cats give birth to at least 2-3 kittens. It is a proven fact that cat hair can aggravate respiratory diseases like asthma."