- Hundreds have an unknown illness that has killed at least one person.
- While many feared this could be the start of another virus outbreak, initial reports point to environmental dangers.
- Pesticides and chemicals used for cleaning may be to blame.
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A mysterious illness in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has killed at least one person and left hundreds ill, according to reports by United Press International (UPI).
The cause of the illness is yet to be identified but has triggered widespread concern and fears that it could be another new virus.
However, experts said that, according to initial reports, this scenario appears to be unlikely.
The illness was first detected on Saturday, Dec. 5, in the southern Indian city of Eluru, according to the Associated Press (AP).
Geeta Prasadini, director of public health of the state of Andhra Pradesh, told the AP that people started to suddenly experience convulsions.
A 45-year-old man died on Sunday, Dec. 6, and many more took ill in Eluru with complaints of “giddiness and epilepsy since Saturday night,” according to the Hindustan Times.
Of the 510 people affected so far, 430 have been discharged from the hospital, with only one death reported, the state health minister, A. Krishna Srinivas, told the Indian Express.
“I am appealing to people not to panic,” he said. “The number of patients has come down; less than 40 were reported today. I know people are scared. We are trying to understand what caused it.”
This health emergency comes on the heels of recent data that shows Andhra Pradesh is being hit especially hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. The region has recorded almost 900,000 cases and over 7,000 deaths as of Dec. 9.
News of this unknown illness has spread rapidly around the world. And the characteristics of this event are strikingly similar to the initial reports of COVID-19 at the beginning of this year.
However, it’s important to remember that there’s no evidence yet that this is a new type of virus.
Indian media reported that symptoms included “a bout of epilepsy for 3-5 minutes, memory loss for a few minutes, anxiety, vomiting, headache, and back pain.”
“The people who fell sick, especially the children, suddenly started vomiting after complaining of burning eyes,” an Eluru Government Hospital medical officer told the Indian Express. “Some of them fainted or suffered bouts of seizures.”
According to the AP, experts are confounded by the absence of a common link between the hundreds of people who became ill.
Everyone affected has tested negative for COVID-19 and other viral diseases like dengue, chikungunya, and even herpes. None are related or live in the same area, and they’re from different age groups.
Sai, a 21-year-old man from one town in the affected area, spoke about his experience with Time.
He told the magazine that he was out with his friends on Sunday, Dec. 6, when he developed seizures and then fell unconscious on the road in his hometown of Eluru.
The young man added that he felt tired and weak a few hours later, when he woke up in the hospital. Two days later he was back home and hasn’t felt ill since.
“It was so unexpected that I feel like I imagined this whole episode,” he said.
Local news outlets say that a preliminary report from All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, has found traces of heavy metals, such as lead and nickel, in at least 10 blood samples collected from patients from different places in the affected areas.
“Health experts suspect that excessive use of bleaching powder and chlorine in sanitation programs as part of COVID-19 prevention measures may be the cause of water contamination,” said Krishna Srinivas, Andhra Pradesh health minister.
Dr. Nikhil Bhayani, infectious disease specialist with Texas Health Resources, told Healthline that it’s too early to tell, but based on reports, “the blood work has been normal,” making infectious causes less likely.
While contaminated water is a possibility, the AP reports that government officials confirmed that people who don’t use municipal water have also fallen ill. Initial tests of water samples haven’t found evidence of contamination, according to the AP.
“It’s unclear what the ultimate cause of the mystery illness is at this point, but one possibility is organophosphate poisoning,” said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York.
Glatter said that “this could involve people eating tainted vegetables with pesticides or even heavy metals.”
He said that pesticides belong to the family of organophosphate compounds, and ingesting these chemicals can lead to muscle tremors, confusion, and seizures, “along with diarrhea, salivation, and increased tear production.”
Glatter said that the possibility of the chemicals leaking into the water supply is less likely, “since tens of thousands would likely have been affected with many more deaths expected.”
This illness is more difficult to solve, he said, because a common link connecting all cases hasn’t been identified.
He noted, though, that “the most common unintentional exposure routes are from inhalation and contact with the skin.”
“It will be important to look at a wide array of toxicologic and infectious possibilities, and keep an open mind when trying to isolate the cause of this mysterious outbreak,” Glatter said.
In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, news of a mysterious illness that has struck hundreds of people in India, and killed one, have emerged, attracting worldwide attention and stoking fears.
Indian health officials have ruled out the new coronavirus and other common viruses, but suspect contaminated water or pesticide exposure might have caused the symptoms, which include vomiting, convulsions, and back pain.
Experts say that chemical compounds in pesticides can cause similar symptoms, and that exposure would likely have occurred through inhalation or skin contact.