Kochi: Five central districts of Kerala are in the grip of chikungunya and even as more than 120,000 affected people limp back to normal life, the state government has come under fire from public health experts and environmentalists for a total collapse of the public health-care system.
Official figures put the number of deaths at 203, but non-governmental organizations say the actual figures could be much higher. Pathanamthitta, Kottayam, Idukki, Alappuzha and Ernakulam are the worst-hit districts.
The first few cases of viral fever were detected in Pathanamthitta in late April and then slowly spread northward.
For a while last month, it seemed like the state government had the outbreak under control. But with recurrence of many cases in July, a Central government team led by N.K. Ganguly, director-general of the Indian Council for Medical Research, arrived to survey the affected areas early this week. The team confirmed that it was an outbreak of chikungunya, a viral illness spread by the bite of infected mosquitoes. The disease resembles dengue, and is characterized by severe, sometimes persistent, joint pain, as well as fever and rash.
Kerala health minister P.K. Sreemathy said in the state assembly on Wednesday that tests conducted by central medical experts on the blood samples collected from patients suffering from fever have confirmed that they were infected with chikungunya, allaying fears that some other kind of “mysterious” fever was spreading in the state.
Sreemathy said the state government has recruited 748 doctors and deputed them to the affected areas. Admitting that the fever has been unprecedented, she claimed there has not been a single death due to the fever alone and it has proved fatal in those cases where the patients had other chronic ailments.
C.R. Soman, a public health expert and chairman of the activist organization Health Action by People, says such an epidemic threat has been in the offing for quite some time. Soman, as well as other public health experts such as S. Ramankutty, blame ecological changes. “When agriculture was the main activity in the state, the use of pesticides in paddy fields helped vector control. But in the 1980s, agricultural land shrank and the man-made pools, potholes and marshes became breeding grounds for mosquitoes,” Soman said.
Blaming the state for the collapse of the public health system, Soman added: “Lopsided views of development have changed the concept of public health with preventive action giving way to hospital-based curative activities.”
Kerala Planning Board member K.K. George says that such outbreaks point to the collapse of the acclaimed “Kerala model”. Strides made in public health and education in the 1960s and 1970s that gave the state high social indices had been praised as a sound model for development.
PTI contributed to this story.