September 3, 2008

Bihar Faces Measles Threat

By Kounteya Sinha

NEW DELHI: Spurred by fears of a measles outbreak in the flood- affected districts of Bihar, the state health department has decided to undertake a massive vaccination drive against the highly contagious viral disease from next week.

Speaking to TOI, Bihar's health secretary Deepak Kumar said the drive will mainly cover children in the districts of Supaul, Madhepura, Katihar, Araria, Purnea, Bhagalpur and Saharsa, which have been badly affected.

Kumar has written to the Centre, asking it to provide 1 lakh vials of measles vaccine for the drive. Sources in the union health ministry said 5 lakh doses of the vaccine will be sent to the state by next week.

Kumar told TOI, "The move is precautionary. We don't want a measles outbreak on our hands. People are specially vulnerable in these districts because many of them are huddled in camps. And measles spreads through the air by infectious droplets while coughing or sneezing and is highly contagious. The drive will start next week."

Kumar said the state will also embark on a Vitamin A fortification drive for flood victims. Vitamin A deficiency makes people susceptible to infectious diseases and vision problems. According to the Centre, the main challenge as far as health and epidemics are concerned in Bihar will come once the flood water starts to recede. Ministry officials said there was already an increase in cases of diarrhoea, in particular.

"We have also asked the union health ministry to provide us with anti-diarrhoeal tablets. In the flood infected districts, we are getting at least 30 diarrhoea patients every day," Kumar said.

The region is a hotbed for Kala Azar - a parasitic disease - which is transmitted through the bite of a sandfly. Over 60 per cent of the cases in India are in Bihar alone. Also known as black fever, it afflicts the poorest people. The infection causes visceral leishmaniasis which attacks the liver and spleen, causing irregular bouts of fever and substantial weight loss.

"At present, the water has strong currents in which vectors can't breed. Once the water has receded, leaving behind stagnant patches, sand flies will breed here in abundance. This could lead to a rise in Kala Azar," a health ministry official said.

"Bleaching powder and chlorine tablets are being distributed and people are being told to purify drinking water. We will be dispatching two crore chlorine tablets over the next two weeks. We are also setting up public health teams which will leave for Bihar as soon as the state requires our help."

The floods have displaced an estimated 3 million people and claimed at least 90 lives.

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