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Monday, April 21, 2008
Shillong, Meghalaya — A burst of a deadly strain of meningitis has swept the hills of Meghalaya, infecting hundreds, and officials say they are ‘keeping their fingers crossed’ because the situation has reached a critical point with efforts on to check its advance.
Twenty-nine deaths, either of confirmed or suspected cases of meningitis, have been reported from the East Khasi Hills, Jaintia Hills, Ri Bhoi, East Garo Hills and West Garo Hills districts, says a top health official, who declined to be identified.
A total of 239 cases have been reported from five of the state’s seven districts.
The disease is transmitted by oral transmission or merely inhaling the breath of an infected person.
However, the total number of casualties, including those infected, could be much higher – many cases were unreported because people were unaware of the disease, say health staff in the districts.
A central medical team from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases visited the affected districts, took samples and has reported to the health ministry in New Delhi.
The state government, although in full operational mode now to battle the crisis, says that a number of factors slowed initial action. This included the slowing of government machinery as a result of campaigning and voting for last month’s legislative elections and subsequent intensive government formation efforts.
The latter saw the administration virtually grind to a halt. There was much tension as the Congress’ desperate efforts to install its government failed in the wake of an anti-Congress verdict, which brought in a regional coalition mentored by Purno Sangma, the Nationalist Congress Party leader and former Lok Sabha speaker.
‘We broke the story and the director of health services was on the defensive and claimed that it was malaria and not meningococcemia,’ said Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times, the state’s largest English-language newspaper.
The infection has symptoms like sore throat, high fever and even bleeding from organs that can lead to a rapid and painful death. It is often described as brain fever with flu-like symptoms. Meningococcemia is also characterised by skin rashes that can result in skin haemorrhages.
Diagnosis is possible by examining the cerebro-spinal fluid, blood culture and samples from skin lesions.
Barely 500 doses of the preventive vaccine for health workers and medical staff have been distributed, reaching only a fraction of those who are at most risk since they come into daily contact with meningitis victims. The state government says more kits are being dispatched and that there are now enough stocks of medicines to treat the disease.
Surveillance reports from districts are received every day from the state headquarters in Shillong and officials say that the next days will be crucial.
Doctors are taking elementary precautions on their own while treating patients, such as wearing masks and stopping home clinics.
Health officials say the current Director of Health Services had cautioned government doctors against speaking out about the disease because he did not want to cause ‘panic’.