Fear of plague haunting Himachal villages

April 2nd, 2012 - 12:37 pm ICT by IANS  

Shimla, April 2 (IANS) Residents of the Rohru rural belt in Himachal Pradesh are living in fear of the ‘wrath of god’. The cause of the scare is actually pneumonic plague caused by rats, but many of them believe that every 10 to 15 years supernatural forces cause the disease outbreak.

By their calculation, these residents of Rohru division in Shimla district believe, the ‘wrath of god’ will strike them some time this year. Rohru and its nearby areas are home to around 20,000 people.

These are the observations of an ongoing study by the Department of Community Medicine at the Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh.

The Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) sanctioned the study for two years to investigate socio-epidemiological factors related to the 2002 plague outbreak in Rohru that claimed four lives.

Simultaneously, it’s trying to elucidate the sylvatic cycle of plague bacilli transmission in areas around Rohru.

“Some of the locals interviewed do know that plague is spread by rats, through the bite of fleas living on the rats’ body. A majority of them, however, consider it a wrath of god and supernatural forces,” Sonu Goel, principal investigator and assistant professor at PGIMER, told IANS.

He said local people believe environment plays a major role in the spread of the plague.

“Most respondents who participated in functional group discussions and in-depth interviews are of the opinion that the plague repeats itself after every 10 to 15 years and an outbreak could recur again some time this year when heavy snowfall is predicted by ‘devtas’ or local deities.”

The group has interviewed over 150 locals, including families of the 2002 plague victims and the medical officers posted there at the time of the disease outbreak.

The study observed that the people of the case study earn their livelihood from agriculture. They are highly superstitious, having strong faith on their own ‘devi-devta’ or deities. Many people are addicted to drugs also. Alcohol consumption and smoking are common.

The agricultural fields are attached to the forests. “Peri-domestic rats could be found inside houses and wild rodents are present in high densities,” said the study.

The peri-domestic rats are those which live in agricultural fields and open spaces near human habitation.

Hunting, though banned, is mostly practised during winters in forests. The locals regularly visit the caves in deep forests during their expeditions. It has emerged from the study that in the 2002 plague outbreak, the index case acquired infection from these caves.

Therefore, possibly they have fair chances of exposure to rats and their burrows and there are chances of potential spread of the disease, says the study.

Goel said an investigation of micro-climate in forests, rat burrows and caves was also done to ascertain the potential of animal hosts to spread the plague in the local areas.

“Vectors for plague (rodents) are being studied in their habitat. A total of 159 rodents — 109 domestic, 23 peri-domestic and 27 wild — belonging to three species, Rattus rattus, Rattus norvegicus and white footed rat have been captured from Hatkoti, Jubbal, Rohru and its adjoining areas,” he said.

Another researcher, Harvinder Kaur said Randhir, the first victim of the plague in 2002, had contracted it while hunting near Rohru.

He had reportedly consumed the meat of the slaughtered animal after the hunt. He developed high fever and blood vomiting.

Kaur said 16 people tested positive for plague in 2002, of whom four died.

The study says the Hatkoti-Rohru area, an affluent apple belt of Himachal Pradesh some 120 km from state capital Shimla, had witnessed similar outbreaks in the 1980s.

(Vishal Gulati can be contacted at vishal.g@ians.in)

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