Disease Outbreak Strikes Thousands in Flood-Hit East India

( [email protected] ) Sep 04, 2007 12:26 PM EDT

BHUBANESWAR, India – The increase of waterborne diseases after heavy rains caused flooding and unsafe sanitary conditions in the eastern India has killed up to 250 people and sickened thousands, according to reports last week.

"The death toll in the three cholera-hit districts of the state [of Orissa] – Rayagada, Koraput and Kalahandi – has gone up to 140," said Dr. Usha Patnaik, the state’s director of health services, in an Associated Press report Thursday.

On Friday, however, UK.-based relief group ActionAid said it received reports from local sources that nearly 250 people had died in Koraput, Rayagada and Kalahadi, nearly double the official death toll.

Orissa health secretary Chinmoy Basu said a cholera outbreak in the state was caused by locals drinking water from stagnant pools of water and eating contaminated meat.

“Diarrhea is a seasonal problem. But in our case, the situation is severe,” the health official reported. “The tribals have particular food habits like eating uncooked meat, not drinking water from tube wells. So health and hygiene are also factors.”

In the Rayagada district where at least 59 people have died, a community health care center doctor serving there said more than 3,000 were receiving treatment for water-borne diseases.

However, with a combined population of 150,000 in the districts of Rayagada and Koraput, the lack of doctors has turned out to be a problem.

“[T]here are only three regular government doctors, which means there’s a lone doctor to treat a population of 50,000,” lawmaker Anantram Majhi said.

In response, medical teams have been dispatched to both districts to make up for the shortage of local doctors.

In the state of Bihar on the Naplese border, meanwhile, Catholic Relief Services (CRS) staff and partners in India are responding to an increase in water-borne illnesses.

Nurses in remote health centers are reportedly treating more cases of malaria, diarrhea and respiratory infections. Snake bites are also on the rise, and CRS predicts that health workers will need larger supplies of anti-venom to prevent victims from dying.

"Snake bites are not uncommon in the summer months, but the number of cases this year in Bihar is much higher due to the flooding," said Jennifer Poidatz, CRS India country representative, in a report last Wednesday. "With more heavy rain in the forecast, we're concerned the health risks here could get much worse."

Across the country, CRS – the official international humanitarian agency of the Catholic community in the United States – has been working with local partners and the government to provide flood relief to 50,000 families in five states. The agency's $5 million commitment is also supporting monsoon relief efforts in Pakistan, Nepal and Bangladesh.

Other Christian aid agencies – including Action by Churches Together (ACT) International, BWAid, Christian Aid, Tearfund, the Evangelical Fellowship of India Commission on Relief (EFICOR), Caritas Internationalis, and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), among others – are also working with their partners in various Indian states and regions to bring relief to devastated areas.

Pope Benedict XVI last month called for a "generous" international response to aid the victims.

"I urge the church community to pray for the victims and support all initiatives of solidarity to lessen the suffering of so many people," he said during a traditional Sunday blessing.

Monsoon season rains usually hit South Asia from June to September. They are vital to farmers whose crops feed hundreds of millions of people, but also deadly. Around 3,000 people have died this year, more than double the number killed in 2006.