16 people dead in 90 days; Cause of death: unknown

Officials and experts from five medical bodies of the state are hard at work in Sindhudurg district, where a mystery organism has claimed 16 lives; preliminary investigations have ruled out Leptospirosis as a probable cause
With 16 residents of Sindhudurg having succumbed to an unknown malady in the past three months, the state health department is pulling out all the stops to hunt down the killer bug that caused it. Experts from as many as five medical bodies have been dispatched to the killing fields by the state health department, and are burning the midnight oil to identify the cause and nip it in the bud.

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Giving officials of the Health Ministry additional cause for concern is the fact that this is the second consecutive deadly outbreak in the district, within the span of a year. Last year, 18 deaths were reported in the district, all caused by leptospirosis. In the Konkan belt, 12,000 confirmed cases of the disease were recorded, with 44 of the afflicted patients succumbing to it.

According to reports, 17 patients complaining of symptoms like cold and respiratory distress died in the past three months. Doctors at Sindhudurg immediately suspected a return of the Leptospirosis bug, and the district had experienced an outbreak of the disease last year. Moreover, the symptoms common among all the victims were fever and respiratory distress, both of which are tell-tale signs of leptospirosis. However, pathological reports managed to confirm Leptospirosis as the cause for only one death of the 17. Six of the deaths occurred in the Kankavli block of the district.

Clueless about this lethal, anonymous bug, which threatens to take more lives, doctors and diagnosticians from five bodies -- the Haffkine Institute in Mumbai, National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune, and three teams from the Miraj, Kolhapur and Pune hospitals - are spending hours in the labs and medical centers, pooling in their resources to help effect an early detection and treatment of the deadly disease.

JK Banthia, the additional chief secretary of the health department, paid a visit to the district last Friday, in order to review the situation.

Dr Pradeep Awate, in-charge of the state's integrated disease surveillance programme, said, "The 17 people who succumbed to this mystery disease were from different age groups, and three to five of them were senior citizens. The cause for concern is that only one of them have tested positive for Leptospirosis, the disease which claimed so many lives last year. This indicates that some other undetected organism is claiming all these lives. Experts need to urgently detect the organism, and modify treatment protocol if necessary."

Dr D S Dakhure, director of the Directorate of Health services said, "The medical staffers suspect that something other than leptospirosis could have caused the deaths. Taking cognisance of their report, we have asked experts from the Haffkine Institute and NIV to study the demographics and collect serum samples and examine them for the presence of a virus or bacteria, which could have led to the deaths."

Dr CJ Shinde, of the public health department, Sindhudurg district, said, "The dispatched teams are already here, collecting serum samples from patients with similar symptoms. The team from NIV has also been collecting rodents from the locality. We might need to change the treatment protocol, if it emerges that some other bacteria or virus is causing the deaths."

Dr Vidya Aranpale, senior director, NIV, said, "The team is collecting serum samples. Hopefully, we will infer the cause of death soon."

Senior physician Dr Pratit Samdani of the Jaslok hospital said, "It's a good move that the state health department is studying the patterns. The fact that a majority of the cases have not tested positive for leptospirosis is a cause for worry. The deaths may have been caused by the Hanata virus, which presents symptoms similar to that of Leptospirosis."

Plan of action
The state health department has passed the order that every case of fever occurring in the Konkan belt be treated for Leptospirosis, so as to avoid mortality. The health officials working in the region have also been put on a prophylaxis dose, so that they don't contract the disease.  In addition to this, all the primary health care centers in the region have been provided with rapid testing kits to detect leptospirosis at the very onset.
The department has also alerted its counterpart in Goa. An official said, "We have asked the Panaji Medical College to admit suspected patients of Leptospirosis, and even provide them with free medicines."

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