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

‘Mystery’ disease causes uncommon symptoms like inflamed liver and water retention in stomach. Samples sent to NIV Pune for investigation.

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Firozabad: Sarvesh Kumar looks too tired to mourn. He buried three of his five children last week — all lost to a “mysterious” viral fever that has scourged through Firozabad leaving 39 dead, 32 of them children. 

The labourer stared vacantly as he recounted the deaths of Akash, 3, Ramu, 7, and Mohini, 10. He told ThePrint: “The district hospital refused to admit Ramu even as I begged them to. I knew my son was very sick. But they asked me to take him to Agra. Ramu died on the way, on my lap. And when I returned to the hospital after burying him, my Mohini was gone too.” So was Akash. 

District officials are grappling to find the right cause and cure for this “bizarre disease with uncommon symptoms”. 

Sarvesh Kumar lost three of his five children to the mystery disease last week | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
Sarvesh Kumar lost three of his five children to the mystery disease last week | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Seven adults, too, have died from the fever since the first case was reported on 20 August, district Magistrate Chandra Vijay Singh told ThePrint. Almost all of them were poor, he said. 

Reports of this disease have started pouring in from other districts of western Uttar Pradesh like Mathura, Agra, Mainpuri, Etah and Kasganj, according to a report in The Times of India. But Firozabad remains the worst-affected.

Uttar Pradesh Additional Health Secretary Amit Mohan Prasad, though, rubbished the suggestion that the disease had spread. “The only big outbreak is in Firozabad, followed by a few cases in Mathura. Other districts are fine,” he said.

ThePrint reached Firozabad Chief Medical Officer Neetu Kulshrestha, who was transferred Wednesday, for a comment but she didn’t respond to calls and messages.

Also Read: Pesticide residues could be behind Andhra mystery illness, ‘long-term study’ needed — experts

What exactly is the disease?

The Firozabad district is currently treating the disease as a viral fever with dengue-like symptoms. Reported symptoms include, fever, chills, body ache, headache, dehydration, rapid decline in platelet count and stomach ache.

District authorities told ThePrint that many of the children who died tested positive for dengue.

Singh said: “Though this is dengue season, some children showed unusual symptoms along with fever, like inflammation of the liver and water retention in the stomach.” 

He said a team of doctors has arrived from Lucknow to study the disease. Samples have also been sent to Lucknow and the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, for further investigation. Singh added: “Research will tell if this is a different disease or a new strain of the dengue virus.”

The district hospital in Firozabad is teeming with ailing children | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
The district hospital in Firozabad is teeming with ailing children | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

Eleven days since the outbreak came to light, health officials are relying on NS1 rapid tests to check for dengue. The district hadn’t conducted an Elisa (enzyme-linked immunoassay) test — considered more reliable — to check for dengue till 31 August.

Chief Medical Superintendent of Firozabad Alok Kumar believes the rapid tests help doctors to start treatment early. “These are 90 per cent accurate, so we have not felt the need for Elisa so far,” Kumar said.

He said the district had tested 245 people on 30 August, and 27 were positive for dengue. “Since symptoms are largely of dengue or viral fever, we are treating it as such. But some patterns are just bizarre. I am sure research will reveal that this is a different disease altogether,” Kumar told ThePrint. 

Covid has been ruled out since none of the children tested positive for SARS-CoV-2, Additional Health Secretary Prasad said.  

The state is also looking at the possibility of the bacterial infection ‘Scrub Typhus’, after six people died in Mathura from this disease. Prasad told ThePrint: “Samples from patients in Mathura tested positive for Scrub Typhus — a communicable disease spread by rodents. We are checking samples in Firozabad too for the bacteria.”

Scrub Typhus is a bacterial infection caused by the Orientia tsutsugamushi bacteria and spread by the bite of infected larval mites. 

Also Read: Mysterious diseases in chimpanzees at Sierra Leone sanctuary linked to bacteria 

Desperation in Firozabad 

The situation is alarming in Firozabad. There are long queues of parents with wailing children in front of pharmacies and hospitals. Many want their children to be admitted.

The district hospital looked overwhelmed, reminiscent of the panic outside medical centres during the second wave of Covid. But this time it is largely children who are afflicted, tugging at the corner of their mothers’ saris, burning with fever and crying of pain.  

At Autonomous State Medical (S.M.) College, Firozabad, some parents were pleading with the doctors to treat their kids on priority.

One of them, Ruby, was running around with her two-month-old daughter Komal, looking for help. The baby was frothing at the mouth. Ruby said the girl was growing weak by the minute. “Her platelet count is low, but the hospital wants another test. I just want her to be admitted but nobody is listening,” she cried. 

Most parents were armed with paracetamol, vitamin tablets and hydrating solutions.

At least 50 of them closed around ThePrint’s team and begged for help. “They are asking us to line up patiently when our children are dying. Some of us are being asked to go to private facilities. This is mistreatment,” one of them said. 

Dengue is a virus and has no cure, said L.K. Gupta, Department Head, Paediatrics at S.M. Medical College. He told ThePrint: “We can give medicines to strengthen the immune system and advise them to stay hydrated. We are administering blood to those with low platelet count. The more serious ones are being hospitalised.” 

The district magistrate as well as local doctors are attributing the outbreak to water-logging, open drains and stored water in houses.

In Firozabad’s Sudama Nagar, where residents say at least 12 children have died in the last 10 days, people describe a poor sanitation situation.  

A fumigation drive underway in one of the worst-affected pockets of Firozabad | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint
A fumigation drive underway in one of the worst-affected pockets of Firozabad | Manisha Mondal | ThePrint

“Our tap water is untreated, black and smells of excreta. It gives us rashes,” said Shivani, a resident of the area comprising mostly slums.

Residents said the drains were cleaned and the area fumigated only after a visit by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath was announced last month.

Guddi, 30, said: “We have not seen anyone with a broom in the last four years. But a day before Yogi’s visit, the streets were swept four times. At least four inches of muck was removed from the drains. It looks clean today but they are usually a menace.” 

Also Read: There’s a zoonotic viral disease in south India and it peaks every summer


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