|Saturday, March 9, 2002||
THE first incidence of plague in the world in this century can safely be considered contained. Five deaths and health authorities of three states on high alert is what it took to combat the disease. Despite the national health authorities taking credit for the efficient snuffing out of a deadly and highly virulent disease that could have easily spread its tentacles beyond Hathkoti and Kansal, the fact remains that we are very lucky to have a premier health institute like the PGI catering to this region. Any comparison with the abysmal failure of the health authorities during the Surat plague might not be very fair since, by all accounts, the extent of the spread of the disease in North India was much lower than that in Maharashtra and Gujarat in 1994. According to one report, before pneumonic plague spread in Surat in September, more than 10 per cent of the population of Mamla village in Maharashtra was already suffering from bubonic plague till August end. Compare this to the figures we have here.
Basically, there were
two families involved in this plague. The first person to catch the
infection and die of the disease was Randhir Sahota of Hathkoti village
in Rohru district of Himachal. He is the only one who died of bubonic
plague and since he remained untreated, he spread it to his family
members as pneumonic plague. Krishan Singh of Kansal village in Punjab
had an unfortunate interaction with the Hathkoti family and caught the
infection. He also died of plague but only after passing the infection
to his wife and daughter.
Randhir Sahota’s visited the hospital in Jubbal, two days before he died of plague. He was sent back home saying that he was suffering from cough and cold. Despite similar outbreaks of plague in the region in the early eighties, the local doctors working there had probably forgotten that diseases have regional tones and the symptoms have to be read in a geographical context. Not that the city doctors did any better. Krishan Singh was X-rayed on his first visit to the General Hospital, Sector 16, Chandigarh, two days before he died of plague. He was told that he was suffering from tuberculosis — at a time when newspapers were shrieking that there were six plague patients in the PGI.
The worst is still to come — the role played by the Mohali-based multi-specialty hospital called Silver Oaks. This hospital admitted a plague patient, had him for 16 hours but could not diagnose the disease. When the patient was about to die, the hospital authorities sent him away in an extremely virulent state to the PGI’s crowded emergency without any qualms whatsoever. Then when they realised that one of their own nurses who had treated the dying man had also caught the infection, they sent her too to the PGI against the institute’s advice that she should be given treatment in Silver Oaks itself. If there are any rules to be followed for the control of diseases like plague, this hospital violated them all.
And those who followed the protocol were the ones who contributed the maximum towards the containment of the disease. When the first set of patients arrived from Himachal to the PGI, they were kept in the PGI emergency. Since their referral hospital had no specific diagnosis of what Randhir’s wife Sulochana was suffering from, it was a good 30 hours before the "P" word started being used and the whole family was immediately isolated. Once it was clear what one was dealing with, the health authorities were quick to respond. The battle to combat this highly contagious disease had to be won. The treatment of the patients began under the charge of the Department of Internal Medicine, PGI, and after the first two deaths — that of Sulochana and Randhir’s sister Anu — all others from the family in Himachal are improving, three of them have been discharged. Krishan Singh’s wife Karamjit and their daughter Jasbir too are improving and so is the nurse from Silver Oaks.
To control the disease from spreading, the Department of Community Medicine was given the charge of tracing the people these patients had come in contact with during their journey to Chandigarh from Rohru. Every contact was found and given medicines so that the disease did not spread.
The fact that Krishan Singh, the young man from Kansal, had interacted with the Himachal family during their stay in the PGI emergency where the former was taking care of his ailing brother, had gone unnoticed by these doctors turned detectives. They traced this link after Krishan Singh died at the PGI emergency of pneumonic sepsis and his wife started showing similar symptoms soon after his cremation at Mansa, the family’s hometown. The Sirsa civil hospital promptly referred Karamjit and then her three- year-old daughter to the PGI. Now there were three states and a UT involved. An alert was sounded. The state health authorities with the PGI’s help prepared a list of more than 150 people spread over three states who could have come in contact with Krishan Singh and his family and thus caught the disease. All these people were given medicines. With no more contacts reporting any pneumonic plague-like symptoms, the doctors and nurses taking care of these patients and those manning the PGI plague helpline can now hope to take it easy.