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Move beyond quick-fix solutions

Tuesday, 24 January 2017 | Archana Jyoti | in Oped

Villagers in Andhra Pradesh, who have been affected by mysterious kidney ailments, deserve more that just pensions. For immediate relief, the Government must ensure safe drinking water and regulate the use of agro-chemicals

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu’s recent announcement to dole out pension under the physically handicapped category to the patients suffering from mysterious kidney ailments in Uddanam area of Srikakulam district, though delayed, is welcome.

As of 2015, the mystery kidney disease has wiped out more than 4,500 farmers and agricultural labours in the last 10 years. Around 34,000 people in the region, in and around 100 villages, are in its grip.

One can gauge the enormity of the health problem given that in 2015, 70 per cent of the total kidney ailments in the southern State came from this coconut-growing region. There is no let up in new cases too.

Naidu has rightly asked the State health and panchayat raj departments to take the disease as a challenge and ensure war-footing measures for providing a permanent solution.

The State Government has already set up dialysis centres in Srikakulam, Tekkali and Palakonda areas, two more centres are planned at Sompeta and Palasa. The Naidu Government has promised mineral water supply to all villages.

According to reports, symptoms for the disease include hypertension and diabetes, followed by a long asymptomatic period, and later diagnosed with excess proteins in urine, decreased red blood cell count, and high levels of uric acid in blood.

Interestingly, Uddanam is not the only region that is facing the wrath of this health problem. Highest concentration of chronic kidney disease (CKD) is being reported from some parts of Sri Lanka and Nicaragua.

However, it will not be wrong to say that the State Government woke up from its slumber only after Telugu superstar and Jana Sena Party chief Pawan Kalyan threatened to agitate if agony of the patients, afflicted with the deadly disease, is not addressed immediately and adequately.

What is also intriguing is that while many people have died so far, our scientists have not been able to identify the exact cause of the death.

Also, what can be termed as Government apathy, the scientists from the Indian Council for Medical Research and the Harvard University, Andhra Medical College, Bhabha Atomic Research Centre and NTR University of Health Sciences had to stop their investigation into the disease mid-way due to shortage of fund.

They had initially pinpointed ‘excessive levels of silica in water’ as the cause after a preliminary round of examination.

The ailing people of the region deserve more than just pensions. The State Government must take immediate steps to ensure long-term solutions to identify the reason and curb the disease, causes of which remain a mystery.

That of course may take more time to fix. The Government can rope in the scientists from Union Ministries of Science and Technology and Environment.

Anirban Ganguli of Georgetown University in the May 2016 issue of the American Journal of Kidney Disease, noted that although the association of specific occupations with endemic nephropathy has highlighted the issue of environmental toxins and heat stress, the exact cause of the disease remains unknown.

While chemical analyses of cultivated rice or drinking water from the endemic region have been negative, the concern of environmental pollution with organo-chemical pesticides and heavy metal-remains, because this was not assessed in these studies, he said.

In 2011, a group of researchers studied the drinking water sources of these villages and found that “the presence of phenols and mercury in drinking water was found to be very high. Phenols and mercury, being very toxic in their characteristic nature, are bio-accumulative. Hence, these waters are found not suitable for potable purposes”.

T Ravi Raju, vice chancellor,  NTR University of Health Sciences in Vijayawada, who is leading the research on the issue, said a staggering 35 per cent of the population is affected in some areas. Gangadhar Taduri at Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences in Hyderabad added that hard water, aggravated by alcohol, and rampant use of painkillers could be the culprit.

“After an exhausting work day, many men tend to take painkillers and drink alcohol. These and other factors, including dehydration, could be driving the disease,” according to Taduri, who thinks there could be an ongoing CKD epidemic in Khammam district of Telangana too.

The Government’s top two priorities should be supplying safe drinking water to residents and regulating the use of agro-chemicals. The healing touch should come at the earliest.

Meanwhile, Kalyan must keep the heat on the Naidu Government until the health grievances of the locals are met and future generation is safe from the grip of the mysterious disease.

(The writer is Special Correspondent, The Pioneer)