Japanese Encephalitis: The Buzzing Problem Amidst Corona
With the onset of monsoon, Assam faces the never-ending problem of floods. But apart from that, since the past few years, Assam has also been faced with the problem of a dreaded disease called Japanese Encephalitis (JE) which has time and again proved to be deadly. This disease falls under the ambit of Vector-Borne Diseases.
As of now, the death toll caused by this disease is below 50 this year which is less when compared to the statistics of previous years where more than 400 cases were observed due to various vector-borne diseases. However this time the challenge for the authorities might just multiply manifold because of the corona outbreak, which has already made the authorities run helter-skelter; last year the authorities had devised a mechanism to start intensive adult vaccination camps to deal with the entire issue.
The Centre had also agreed to provide a whopping 57 lakh vaccines to combat the disease. The problems related to such dreadful diseases (vector-borne) are not about today; its roots can be traced from the words of historians such as Sir Edward Gait who had said that the weather conditions of Assam were very harsh, very unpredictable and could turn out to be very hostile.
The climatic condition of Assam, which is hot and humid, is similar to some of the South American countries such as Brazil. Now a country like Brazil is said to be one of the most affected with dreadful vector-borne diseases such as Dengue which wreaked havoc a few years ago. But with the combined effort of the authorities and equally backed by the local communities, Brazil devised its very own structured monitoring method also known as Wolbachia method where trials were conducted in phased manner which bore fruit and they were able to clamp down the effects up to a certain extent.
Similarly, a vector management plan (IVM) plan was also devised which targeted areas such as removing stagnant water from vessels and informing areas that were prone to such vector-borne disease well in advance. This was one model that the authorities can follow. The problem with Assam, as seen in similar belts, is that floods may initially flush out mosquito breeding, but it comes back when the waters dry down relatively and that water which gets collected and goes unchecked turns out to be breeding grounds. Such a scenario was seen in various places across the world such as in Costa Rica where floods led to a massive malaria outbreak in 2004. The other problem that has crept up in these corona times is disposing of corpses and such floods will definitely pose a challenge. As of now, the death toll is comparatively less but eventually, there is a possibility that floods may pose a challenge to dispose off the corpses as disposing the body underground or burials will be a Herculean task.
And to add to the woes there shall always be a potential threat upon the disposers as exposure to corona will always be a constant looming threat and apart from that, the disposers are also exposed to infections such as rotavirus diarrhoea, hepatitis A, etc.
However, at a grassroots level, we can take certain measures to mitigate such issues. But the basic ingredients which are required to control the outbreak of JE is following the custom old prevention techniques such as controlling the mosquito population, isolating pigs which is very much important because pig rearing and trade is a common practice across the state of Assam, and following other common prevention methods of wearing full sleeves, mosquito repellents, etc.
There is a very close nexus between floods and vector-borne diseases. Floods may lead to a spurt in vector-borne diseases through various ways such as expansion in the number and range of vector habitats. But the sad reality is that previously (last year) there were reports flying in from various places across Assam such as Goalpara that the peripheral workers have displayed a very callous attitude towards JE and as per the words of the then state program officer of the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme, the workers had portrayed a lax attitude towards the whole issue and it had led to late detection and eventually to higher fatalities.
It is really important at this stage to cooperate with the authorities. Although there are some common symptoms between Corona and JE, it is important to go for immediate testing because currently, the death rate is relatively low. The Assam Community Surveillance Programme (ACSP) has vouched to carry out ground-level surveillance for related to severe acute respiratory infections, vector-borne diseases such as malaria, dengue and have already carried out the second phase which is the ACSP-II and has covered around 29,918 villages approximately.
The current commissioner and secretary of Health and Family Welfare department has stressed upon strict reviewing and asked all the concerned authorities to stay stocked and be well prepared and has further ordered strict surveillance and organizing of awareness camps, especially in tea gardens. However, if the cases related to JE go up it is going to add to the misery of everyone.
So it is best that everyone cooperates and at least turns up for testing. Proper synergy is needed between the authorities and the public to mitigate JE this time around. And the Brazilian model could be used as a referral point for the future times to come.
(The author is currently practicing as an advocate in Gauhati High Court. The views expressed in the article are his own)