Ganjam (Odisha): Tulusha Sahu, 50, has been carting water drawn from a hand pump some 4km away from her village Khatuaguda in Ganjam district after three of her grandchildren fell ill in the aftermath of last week’s Cyclone Phailin and subsequent flooding.
Sahu has no choice but to make that gruelling trip. She is among tens of thousands of people in cyclone-affected districts of Odisha who are staring at an impending epidemic.
“Several people in our village have fallen ill—diarrhoea and fever,” said Sahu as some of her fellow-villagers loaded water jars onto an autorickshaw. “There is no electricity and no water.”
She and three other villagers had managed to book an autorickshaw to help them ferry the water. Poorer villagers have been carrying the water containers on their heads or on cycles.
Over the last couple of days, state health authorities have reported over 400 cases of diarrhoea and thousands of cases of other waterborne diseases from cyclone- and flood-hit districts.
Though officials have not reported any deaths so far and insist the situation is under control, a village in Ganjam—the worst-affected district—has already lost a young boy to diarrhoea, a local resident said.
“We have maximum cases of diarrhoea in our village and at least one young boy has died due to diarrhoea,” said M. Kalia Patra, brother-in-law of Jogimma Behera, a diarrhoea patient at the government hospital at Chhatrapur, the headquarters of Ganjam district.
Ganjam was badly hit when Cyclone Phailin swept through Odisha on the night of 12 October with wind speeds of up to 220km per hour. The cyclone was followed by heavy rainfall and floods.
The state government evacuated nearly 1.2 million people to safety, but while that action minimized deaths from the cyclone, a major challenge has emerged from the need to rehabilitate victims while tackling the threat of epidemics.
In the state capital Bhubaneswar, Subhash Salunke , director of the Indian Institute of Public Health, said government officials had anticipated an outbreak of diarrhoea and that the municipal water source in affected districts were “grossly contaminated”.
“Ganjam was the worst-affected district, so this is an anticipated outcome from the calamity,” he said. “Having said that, the damage has been minimized and the government machinery is working around the clock to ensure patients have access to treatment in affected districts.”
“The priority is to ensure access to safe potable drinking water. One must keep in mind that the affected districts have been extensively flooded and the municipal water source is grossly contaminated in the process,” Salunke added.
At the Chhatrapur community health centre, staff nurse Saila Singh said: “We are getting some 10 cases of diarrhoea-related problems every day for the last few days.” Krushna Chandra Maharana, a physician at a primary health centre in the district, said his centre alone had seen a 25% spike in the number of patients turning up following the flooding.
“We have over 250 cases of diarrhoea in Ganjam alone until Friday morning. It’s the worst-hit district and we have dispatched medical teams to the district,” said N.K. Das, special secretary, health, in the state. Besides, the district has reported around 500 cases of other waterborne diseases.
The state has disposed of carcasses of 170,000 animals and birds that perished in the cyclone and floods.
The fear of epidemics has also mounted in districts such as Jajpur, Bhadrak, Balasore, Kendrapada and Mayurbhanjh, where flooding was particularly severe. In Kendrapada alone, some 1,350 cases of waterborne diseases, leading to fever and acute respiratory problems, have been reported, government data showed.
Odisha revenue and disaster management minister S.N. Patra said he had ordered disciplinary action against any government official found to be relaxing on duty. And Das said the government has now dispatched some 50 additional doctors to Ganjam district to help residents tide over the looming crisis.
But the situation on the ground is grave—it is about the lack of health staff in community and primary health centres, people complain. “There is no light in the hospital and not enough doctors to attend to patients,” said G. Jogi Behera, husband of G. Laxmi, a diarrhoea patient in Ganjam.