Crisis in Delhi over outbreak of dengue and chikungunya

Politicians trade blame after at least 30 dead and thousands infected by mosquito-borne viral diseases.
A woman covers her face as a municipal worker fumigates a residential area to check the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in New Delhi on September 15, 2016. Manish Swarup / AP Photo
A woman covers her face as a municipal worker fumigates a residential area to check the spread of mosquito-borne diseases in New Delhi on September 15, 2016. Manish Swarup / AP Photo

NEW DELHI // At least 30 people have died and more than 2,800 have been infected in an outbreak of two mosquito-borne diseases in Delhi this month, forcing the government into crisis mode and stretching the capital’s hospitals.

The spread of dengue and chikungunya prompted India’s health minister, J P Nadda, to call an emergency meeting on Wednesday.

Dengue has accounted for most of the deaths, with 18 fatal cases reported by hospitals so far, according to the Press Trust of India new agency, and the total number of cases at more than 1,150.

The Sir Ganga Ram Hospital reported the twelfth death in the city from chikungunya on Thursday – a 75-year-old man.

According to figures released by the city, at least 1,000 patients had tested positive for chikungunya in hospitals across Delhi as of September 10 – a rise of 90 per cent from a week earlier.

Both diseases are caused by viruses carried by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, and both present with similar symptoms: high fever, muscle and joint pains, and a rash.

Delhi authorities have begun to “fog” the city’s streets, spraying clouds of an insecticide and diesel mixture that kills adult mosquitoes instantly. However, the spray is effective for only a few minutes and adds to Delhi’s air pollution.

Delhi’s medical services are struggling to cope with the outbreak of the two diseases, with several hospitals converting their conference halls into temporary wards and cramming more beds into existing wards. Leave has also been cancelled for doctors, paramedics and pharmacists.

The Delhi government announced on Tuesday the provision of 1,000 more hospital beds and has set up a helpline for people who suspect that they have either dengue or chikungunya.

The Delhi health minister, Satyender Jain, flatly denied, however, that chikungunya had claimed any lives at all.

“There has never been any death due to chikungunya in the world,” Mr Jain said on Tuesday. “This is media-created panic.”

But according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), at least 190 people across the world have died of complications caused by chikungunya. “Serious complications are not common, but in older people, the disease can contribute to the causes of death,” the WHO factsheet on chikungunya says.

Several of the chikungunya deaths in Delhi were reported to be of elderly patients.

Suby Bhattacharya, a Delhi-based doctor, said that chikungunya in older patients “can aggravate pre-morbid states. So if their kidneys, say, or liver – if such organs are already weak, they can fail under such infections”.

It has not yet been established whether the people who died of chikungunya had a history of organ ailments. If not, “it could well be that there is a new and more virulent strain of the virus out there now”, Dr Bhattacharya said.

He said the number of mosquito-borne diseases had risen in the past five years. “There’s so much construction happening around the city, so much debris and digging, and the pools of water that form at such construction sites are perfect breeding-grounds for mosquitoes.”

The outbreaks of dengue and chikungunya have sparked a political tussle between the Delhi and federal governments.

Since Delhi is the country’s capital, many of its government’s powers are subordinated to its lieutenant governor, who is appointed by the federal government.

The Delhi government, formed by the Aam Admi Party (AAP) has throughout its two-year tenure accused the federal government, headed by prime minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), of meddling.

Mr Jain, in his press conference on Tuesday, accused Najeeb Jung, the lieutenant governor, of “paralysing” Delhi’s health services through his interference.

“We had made all the preparations to deal with any outbreak situation four or five months ago, but the Delhi government-appointed health secretary was suddenly transferred by the [lieutenant-governor],” Mr Jain said. “The new health secretary appointed by Jung has been given a 15-day leave at a time when dengue and chikungunya are on the rise.”

In turn, Satish Upadhyay, the head of the BJP in Delhi, accused the AAP’s leaders of “abandoning” Delhi to campaign in Goa, where state elections are to be held early next year.

“Delhi was never a priority for AAP,” Mr Upadhyay said. “When Delhi needs them, they are all out of the capital.”

Mr Jain was in Goa but returned to Delhi on Tuesday after the spike in dengue and chikungunya infections. Arvind Kejriwal, Delhi’s chief minister, is in Bengaluru for minor throat surgery.

Mr Jung has tried to downplay “political considerations” during this crisis.

“Historically, in an emergency, people have come together and fought together,” Mr Jung said on Wednesday. “That’s what is required now.”

Published: September 15, 2016 04:00 AM


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