Hepatitis virus brings a Kerala village in Ernakulam to its knees

Manoj, his wife Sindhu and son Hari who are recuperating from the infection. Photo: Special Arrangement

Kochi: A rapidly spreading Hepatitis A virus has left the people of Vengoor, a gram panchayat near Perumbavoor, rattled. The village has reported over 200 suspected cases since the first diagnosis was confirmed on April 17. With people falling sick in one household after another, it is not just a matter of public health alone but a question of sustenance of villagers who mostly rely on daily wages for a livelihood.

 A 51-year-old woman succumbed to the disease on May 7 while undergoing treatment in a hospital and three others are in critical condition. The virus has plunged many families into a deep financial crisis. The authorities are still clueless about the source of the outbreak. Fingers are pointed at a drinking water project of the Kerala Water Authority (KWA), though.

The district collector, in his capacity as the district magistrate, has ordered a magisterial probe into the outbreak. Other than that, the local people and their representatives say the official response has been minimal. People living in Vakkuvally, Choorathodu, Kaippilly, Edathuruth, Kodampilly and Vengoor areas of the panchayat have contracted the virus.

Water project under suspicion
Established in 1976, the Rural Water Supply Scheme, Vengoor, has been distributing drinking water to the families of six wards in the panchayat for nearly four decades now. The project has provided connections to 1219 households. The project has its water treatment plant at Chooramudi. The water for the project reaches a pond close to the plant from Periyar Valley canal which originates from Bhoothathankettu reservoir.

The pond under KWA. Photo: Special arrangement

From the pond, the water is filtered and reaches a well where chlorination takes place. The health department which tested the water soon after the outbreak has blamed it on the poor management of the facility for the health crisis. The KWA has refuted the allegations.

“It is clear from the tests conducted on the water samples that the virus got transmitted to the people from the KWA’s project. Samples from water taps have confirmed this. The chlorination was not done properly,” a health department official told Onmanorama. 

Panchayat members, belonging to both the ruling Left Democratic Front (LDF) and opposition United Democratic Front (UDF) have reiterated the allegation. The opposition UDF has alleged severe lapses on the part of the operator who manages the water treatment plant. 

Vengoor Panchayat office. Photo: Special Arrangement

A KWA engineer refuted the allegations saying contamination was detected in the water collected from the pond and not from the well where chlorination is done. He suggested that the source of the virus outbreak could be other smaller drinking water facilities or the water brought from other areas in tanker lorries. The official said the responsibility of cleaning the pond lies with the panchayat.

The health department official Onmanorama spoke to categorically denied the suspicions, sticking to their findings about the KWA project. 

Villagers in financial crisis
Most of the affected villagers are daily wagers. With the disease gripping their families, they are staring at a financial crisis, especially at a time when schools are scheduled to be re-opened in two weeks. 

A view of Vengoor panchayt. Photo: Special Arrangement

P V Krishnankutty, who stays near the water treatment facility, said he had to spend Rs 3.5 lakh for the treatment of his wife Ammini who is yet to recover fully. The panchayat on Friday started a crowdfunding campaign to help the affected families. The panchayat and some NGOs have distributed food kits to the families in crisis. 

The opposition UDF has alleged apathy from the government in addressing the crisis. “Even after a month since the outbreak, the health minister has not bothered to visit the area. The government should release an immediate assistance to the affected families,” Reji Ittoop, vice-president of Congress’ Koovappady block unit, told Onmanorama. He said the government has been protecting the KWA officials responsible for the crisis due to their political allegiance.

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