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In Firozabad, people flee or send kids away as 5 diseases are identified as ‘mystery illness’

Dengue, malaria, viral fever, scrub typhus and leptospirosis make up ‘mystery fever’ wreaking havoc in Firozabad for over a month. Official figures peg toll at 62, most are children.

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Firozabad: Spiders and lizards have cosied up in the abandoned houses of Nagla Amaan, a village in UP’s Firozabad district. Meanwhile, Nagla Mavasi, another village, doesn’t echo with the playful screams of children anymore. 

In both these villages, two of Firozabad’s 152 rural settlements and located close to the city, residents have either packed up and left, or sent their children away. Reason: An outbreak of five infectious diseases that has racked up a double-digit toll since 20 August. 

Dengue, malaria, viral fever, scrub typhus and leptospirosis make up the “mystery fever” outbreak that has been wreaking havoc in the district for over a month, according to Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Dinesh Premi. 

Official figures peg the toll at 62 — 80 per cent of them children — but some media reports claim more than 200 children and adults have died of the infections so far. 

Premi said dengue is the dominant infection with 3,593 samples testing positive for the vector-borne disease. There have been 61 malaria cases, 51 of scrub typhus, and 23 of leptospirosis. 

While malaria is a viral infection spread through female anopheles mosquitoes, scrub typhus and leptospirosis are bacterial infections spread through mites and urine of animals, respectively. 

The CMO didn’t have a cumulative figure for the total number of samples tested by the district. 

Occurring amid a pandemic, this outbreak has local residents more worried than Covid. Its sudden onslaught has also stumped authorities in Firozabad, where, according to the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) website (where every district is mandatorily supposed to give updated figures on disease outbreaks every week), the district hadn’t reported an outbreak a sudden increase in the incidence of a disease over expected levels in a certain area — of any of these five diseases in the preceding three years (2018, 2019 and 2020).

None was reported in the first 25 weeks of 2021 either, the latest period for which data is available on the IDSP portal. 

While residents fault the authorities’ poor hygiene maintenance for setting the stage for the current situation, the CMO blamed the dengue and malaria outbreak on improper water storage by the public that allows mosquitoes to breed.


Also Read: What is scrub typhus, one of the infections suspected to be behind Firozabad ‘mystery’ deaths


People flee villages 

The atmosphere is tangibly sombre when one enters Nagla Amaan and Nagla Mavasi villages near Firozabad city. Residents of these villages say each and every house in the area has been affected by dengue. 

“Covid claimed one life in the village. This dengue has claimed 14, most of them children. Yahan hahakaar macha hua hai (there is pandemonium here). Everyone is scared. We don’t even go to people’s houses if anyone dies,” said 60-year-old Netra Pal, a resident of Mavasi, which has a population of 10,000.

At Nagla Mavasi, not a single child is in sight outdoors. This is because, residents say, the deaths of several local children forced many parents to send their kids away to relatives’ houses elsewhere. Others, they add, are hospitalised or just back home from treatment. 

“This experience has been traumatising for the village. We’ve buried our children almost every day this past one month. I’ve sent my three kids off to Etawah to live with their bua (aunt),” said Kuldeep Singh, a resident. “Other villagers have done the same. The only children in the village are the ones who’ve come back from hospital. Rest all have left.” 

The situation appears more dire at Nagla Amaan, where many residents don’t even have pucca houses. ThePrint couldn’t obtain an assessment about the estimated population because the sarpanch was away tending to his critically ill son in Agra.

Many people have fled Nagla Amaan amid the outbreak | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint
Many people have fled Nagla Amaan amid the outbreak | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

Asked about the outbreak, villagers pointed to white larvae breeding in drains and stagnant water in their houses, and scourges of mosquitoes dancing above them. According to villagers, 15 families have left their houses for good in Nagla Amaan.

Ramveer, 39, a farm labourer, pointed to one house and said, “This house is owned by three brothers. They lost a child, and once they came back from the hospital, they packed up and fled out of fear. We don’t think they’ll come back.” 

At many homes, young children with high fever lay in bed, crying in agony. Their families told ThePrint they don’t have the money to take their children to hospitals.

“I have nine children. All of them suffered from dengue. I am in a debt of Rs 60,000. I spent Rs 60,000 over and above this, which were my life savings. And now so many loans have been taken that people have simply stopped giving loans,” said Ishwar Dayal, who works as a driver. “You can see my infant son lying inside. I have no money to take him to a doctor anymore.”

When asked why villagers don’t go to government facilities, they cited a lack of trust. 

“Nobody listens to you there. You just lie down in a corner for hours and nobody listens to you. Some of the serious cases are anyway referred to Agra. Private ones are expensive but at least they save lives. So we go to private facilities or don’t go to the hospital at all,” Dayal added. 

Despite the spate of infections, villagers alleged they’ve never seen an anti-larva spray and were only “greeted” by a fogging machine once. “Tell me, sister, does one bout of fogging kill all the mosquitoes?” asked a resident of Nagla Amaan. 

Nagla Mavasi sarpanch Jitendra Singh said he’s had to do fogging and spray anti-larva medicines at his own expense, adding that the government has been unhelpful. “The government gave me nothing but 200 ml of anti-larva spray. We asked for more but they didn’t have it. There’s only so much I can do in my personal capacity,” he said.

Stagnant water gathered at Nagla Mavasi | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint
Stagnant water gathered at Nagla Mavasi | Shubhangi Misra | ThePrint

Residents of both villages blamed stagnant water for the outbreak. “Just see this still water. We’ve complained to the tehsildar at least 20 times about this dirty pond in the middle of the village. We even launched a complaint on the chief minister’s portal. But they’re not ready to hear us out. And the cost of their negligence has been our children,” said 65-year-old Krishna Yadav, a resident of Nagla Amaan.

ThePrint reached Firozabad District Magistrate Chandra Vijay Singh by text and calls for a comment, but there was no response by the time of publishing this report.

Disease in Firozabad

Since 2019, Uttar Pradesh has reported 11 dengue outbreaks, and only 1 death from the disease, according to the IDSP.

The last outbreak reported in Firozabad was in 2019, of acute diarrhoea dysfunction, which claimed three lives. Unchlorinated water was the reason behind this outbreak, the IDSP portal states.

When asked why children were particularly affected by this new outbreak, CMO Premi said: “This is the D2 strain of dengue which is very virulent and more dangerous. The virus keeps evolving and new strains keep emerging. Like you can see with Covid-19. Dengue is anyway more dangerous for children and with this strain they’re at a higher risk.” 

While open drains, potholes and garbage pits dot the areas of the district visited by ThePrint, improper water storage was squarely blamed by the administration for the outbreak. 

“I’ll tell you what, Firozabad has one problem: Running water comes for only one hour a day. So, people resort to storing water in huge containers, and they don’t even cover them. All kinds of larvae breed in such water,” he said.

“Heavy and continuous rains have added to the problem this year. Plus Firozabad is primarily a city of labourers who aren’t very educated. They’re not getting tested on time. This is why there are such high casualties.”

(Edited by Sunanda Ranjan)


Also Read: In Firozabad, ‘dengue-like’ disease has killed 32 kids in 11 days. No one knows what it is


 

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