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Infant deaths, far from being crucial in determining the recently concluded electoral fortunes, remain invisible in the remote mountain villages in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. While politicians and State authorities remain untouched by the mounting death toll caused by the “strange disease”, the devastated population recoils in abject helplessness.

Lalropui coiled on the bed of a relative’s floor with her daughter Persie Remsangpui . The mother had come with her little girl to Parbung village from Damdiei village to find medical aid for her baby who is suffering from the feared “strange disease” that has gripped Thanlon and Tipaimukh constituencies in Manipur’s Churachandpur district. However, there were no doctors in Parbung either. Lalropui’s hope was shattered as her baby’s situation grows from bad to worse. Like everyone who were infected by the “strange disease”, Persie’s head , her mother said, would turn hot like a heated pot. Besides, Persie also had high fever and would often vomit. She would cry endlessly till she lost her breathe. The helpless mother and relatives who were silently seated around the sick baby would ceaselessly wet a cloth to cool her head. This is the only effective treatment they could manage to nurse the baby with the “strange disease.” Few days after this Correspondent left the village; Persie succumbed to the “strange disease” that has altogether tolled the lives of over forty (40) infants since the beginning of this year till the time of this writing.

The “strange disease”
The affected population called the disease “strange” due to the sudden and unexplained nature of the deadly outbreak. It is also “strange” because the villagers did not know the ways and means to tackle the menace that is still counting its victims. The strange disease causes high temperature on the head, vomiting, breathing problem, fever and sometimes seizures. After the victims died their nails turned dark and black. Black, round spots would, then, cover their body. “They are the colour of the “strange disease’”, Duoilo Hrangate, Lungthulien villager who also lost his son and five other infants of his relatives to the stalking disease said. “Too many of them have died and there’s nothing that we could do. I don’t even want to talk about it anymore. It made us too helpless,” Malsawmkim who lost a son said. “The strange disease acted so fast. My little boy started vomiting and developed breathing problem at night. He immediately died the next morning,” Ramparmawi of Senvon village said.

In some of the villages, the strange disease is also called “Tulai Natna” (Today’s disease). Last year the same disease was called “Mautam Hri”(Bamboo flower disease). “However, they are the same as it still remains strange to us,” Lalchunghnung Hmar, a human rights activist said. The villagers are totally ignorant of tackling the outbreak that haunts them day and night.
In the absence of any efforts to identify the outbreak, the “strange disease” has already caught up with many names. Kawlhmingthang Khawlum, who lost her daughter, was told by the doctor whom he telephoned to enquire for medical prescription that his little girl was suffering from Pneumonia. Hmingthienghlim was told that her little boy died because he had rotten liver. Lalvulmawi said that her little boy died because he had severe stomach fever. On the other hand, Vanlalsung was told that his little girl might have severe fever in her head. “Everyone we consulted spelt out different diseases. And when our children died they all turned dark or black. The disease remains strange to us,” John, father of Lalnunnem said.

Frontiers sans doctors
Despite the situations that have imploded, the State actors continue to remain distant. Lalhmingthra, who lost her son to the “strange disease” said, “There are no doctors here at all. I have not even seen the face of our community doctor. They are never stationed anywhere within our reach.” “I don’t know if they are scared of catching the deadly disease too, there are no doctors here. We never get to see them,” Lalthutlung who lost his son said. Lalrothang of Tipaimukh village said that no doctors ever come to their village. “We are just like our cattles. Our lives hangs on a thin thread,” Lalthutlung added. Parbung village authority (VA) chairman said that doctors are like unseen visitors here. “Once he came and we told him about the disease and he told us to give the sick infants lots of Septran tablets”, the VA chairman added.

Kawlhmingthang Khawlum said that the situations would be entirely different if doctors were around. “They only surfaced after many have died,” Kawlhmingthang added. The distressed villagers complained of the district TB officer who came to merely posed questions and visited the graves of the infants who have died. “He did not even get to see the sick. He hurriedly left after visiting two villages,” Lalremruot said. Lallawmkim also said, “Once a group of nurses came in the name of medical team. And all they did was weigh all the babies and left again.”

An officer of the 12th Madras Regiment who is posted in the remote Parbung village strongly opined that doctors should come and stay in their posting areas. The Major said, “Doctors who are supposed to be posted here visit the areas only when there is a visit by a dignitary. Even if a doctor comes, he would not even stay for 24 hours. He would curse the innocent villagers and go back” The army officer also said that the health problem is an immense concern to him and he reported about the alarming infant deaths to the Churachandpur district authorities. “If someone gets hurt or sick here, there is no facilities for treatment. They would be just left to die. All they do is they just sit and pray,” the Major said.

Doom flowers, deaths and God
Trapped in an endless spiral of the breakdown of civil administration, the fringe constituencies were driven remorselessly to live life’s dire straits that gnawed them with the outbreak of the “strange disease” and food crisis as well that was caused by the gregarious flowering of bamboo. When science and medicines are adding years to people’s lives in other parts of the country, the precarious population who are negotiating with unenviable lives in the forsaken mountain villages find themselves to be waiting for their turn of death as they were left to their own devices of fighting the disease that cause deaths. Last year, the same disease took more than fifty lives, mostly infants.

The outbreak of the “strange disease” placed a serious burden on the public health system as well as the primitive livelihood system of the susceptible populations. “The disease is not only robbing our lives but is also draining the little money we have. Just as predicted, the bamboo flowering has brought us endless misery,” Laldawmsang who lost a son said. This factor not only reduces the capacity of the communities to move out of their cornered constituencies to avail medical services, but even complicates the task of measuring the impact of the outbreak in their respective villages. Many, still, could not help but blame the bamboo flowering, also called as “doom flower” for turning the cycle of death and food crisis over them. Epidemic outbreaks and food crisis are believed to accompany the “doom flower” that bloom after every forty eight years in this bamboo-rich constituencies that are the epicentres of the phenomenon. While the self-reliant agrarian populations were being pushed to their distress by the “doom flower”, the collapse of health services has severely worsened their distressing regularity. The tragedy, say locals, is that all these lives could have been saved if the government had intervened.

Mothers like Lalinmawi who lost her daughter to the “strange disease” said, “In the absence of everything that could favour us and the lives of our children, we compelled ourselves to believe that everything that is happening to us is, rather, God’s will.” “All that we could do is pray to God,” Kimthang, who lost her only son said. As death’s multiply, the helpless villagers, bereft of all hope, turns to God as a last resort.

Infant deaths: Man-made?
The mysterious infant deaths in the shelved hills that have been invisible to the outside world need to be asked if it is man-made or not? While the authorities merely reduced the severity of the disease by tagging “endemic type” to it, the excuse remains far from saving lives from the claws of the “strange disease”. The slackness on the part of the health authorities have played a role over forty (40) infant deaths. The insensitivity on the part of the State authorities is seen as an attempt to make the disease invisible. Rather than find ways and means to fight the disease, the authorities resorted to lip-synch from a distance to wash their hands clean. “If doctors were available, our children would not go to the grave this early,” Lalrothang of Tipaimukh village who lost her daughter said.

Voices from the land of infant graves felt that lives could have been saved if the responsible authorities only have the will and the responsibility to respond to their situation. Mothers describe how they desperately consult one another or the educated villagers to save their children when the “strange disease” grasps them. One interviewee wishes that the “strange disease” could have a name so that they would know how to make their children immune from it.
The stacked symptoms
The breakdown of civil administration in the fringe constituencies that further resulted in the collapse of health services have stacked high to bear the symptoms of the “strange disease.” While the absence of everything “basic” have already become become normal for the marginalised villagers, the Indian army officer of the 12th Madras regiment expressed his concern: “The Government of Manipur is not present anywhere here. Governance is absent, there is food-crisis in many villages and there is no road. The villagers are still employing crude and primitive methods to sustain their livelihood system. They have a will to do better, but they are not getting any help from the State authorities.” Villagers opine that if not for the Church based organisations that are operating in the cornered constituencies, they would be pushed out from their ancestral home. The Church based organisations, however, did not avail medical services to the villagers. The primary health centre that figures on paper is far from being operational. Doctors and nurses are on their regular missing spree. Meanwhile, the long starking absence has created medical emergency that is spiraling out of control.

What needs to be done
First and foremost, the Government of Manipur should identify the “strange disease” that caused high fatality rates. It should immediately involve in facilitating efforts to activate strategies for the prevention and control of the outbreak of the “strange disease”. Steps should be taken for mass vaccinations to immunise the vulnerable children and infants. The Government should immediately end its reactive responses, but should also focus on long-term mass vaccination campaigns and initiate community awareness programmes. It should install surveillance capabilities, which would mean stationing the absent doctors and nurses in their posting areas. Making the primary health centre operational should stand out in its priority list. The Government should also stress to strengthen decision-making and public health policy development through institutional capacity building efforts. These should be further assisted by infrastructural facilities. A committed dose of political will should doggedly pursue the necessary missing steps. Otherwise, forgotten frontiers like Tipaimukh and Thanlon could easily be wipe out by the “strange disease” if the outbreak turns into a full blast epidemics.

Many more deaths are likely before the disease is brought under control. The villagers fear that the death toll would increase with the onset of monsoon. The Indian Army officer also ruefully said that the villagers will suffer more when the rain comes. Until then, the “strange disease” will continue to generate the dreadful but invisible stench of death to the shattered population behind distant hills and mountain.

Source: Kangla Online

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