A mysterious disease that triggered panic in Andhra Pradesh’s Eluru town and necessitated hospitalisation of over 550 people with symptoms of epilepsy, has turned out to be a case of “neuro-toxicity” caused by heavy metals like lead and nickel, a preliminary study by medical experts has found.
Two preliminary reports — one from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, and another from AIIMS, Mangalagiri in Guntur district — found traces of lead and nickel (both heavy metals) in the blood samples collected from patients from 10 different places in Eluru, the coastal town in West Godavari district.
At least 550 people have fallen sick and were admitted to various hospitals in and around the town since Saturday (December 5) following an undiagnosed illness. This has triggered widespread panic in the region.
“We have sent some more samples to the AIIMS, Delhi. The reports are awaited,” the Superintendent of Eluru Government Hospital Dr A V Mohan said. Of the 550 people who were admitted, only 84 were in hospitals now while the rest have been discharged.
The AIIMS team from Mangalagiri has submitted a preliminary report to the state medical and health department. The authorities have called for some more tests to corroborate the report.
A stream of patients has flooded the hospitals with complaints of convulsions, seizures and giddiness.
“We have tentatively identified the primary cause of this strange phenomenon, but it is not yet clear what its source is and how and why it has happened. For instance, the chemicals were found in the bodies of the patients but not in either water or any other food substance,” state health commissioner Katamaneni Bhaskar said.
A three-member expert team from the Centre led by AIIMS emergency health care head Dr Jamshed Nair, National Institute of Virology expert Dr Avinash Devashtawar and NDCC deputy director Dr Sanketh Kulakarni is expected to reach Eluru shortly to assess the situation.
“We are hoping to get a clear picture of the situation in a day or two as experts are probing all angles to find out the root cause of the disease,” Bhaskar said.
He clarified that the mysterious disease was neither a bacterial or viral infection nor a contagious disease. “It is a sudden onset of symptoms of convulsions and epilepsy which could be treated symptomatically,” he said.
The officials of the sanitation wing, food safety division and drinking water supply department of Eluru municipality have been collecting samples from various localities like South Street, North Street, West Street, Arundhatipet and Ashok Nagar areas to find out whether they have any contamination.
There is panic in these localities which lack basic sanitation facilities – the narrow lanes are stinking with open drains and garbage dumps but people are hardly bothered about the conditions.
“Every house has a drinking water connection, but you can notice drinking water pipelines are passing through sewerage lines. There is no elected body for municipality and so, no official pays any attention to these problems,” said Chode Venkata Ratnam, former deputy mayor of Eluru Municipal Corporation.
The teams from World Health Organisation (WHO) and AIIMS, Mangalagiri, are also touring the affected areas to get first-hand information about the conditions of the patients.
As on Tuesday afternoon, as many as 505 cases have been reported from different parts of the town. “Of them, 332 were discharged after treatment,” hospital authorities said.