Mystery blind births in Bihar

How will this be covered? Probably some environmental toxin, but I’m interested to see how the reporting of this impacts the investigation:

Mystery blind births in Bihar
Giridhar Jha

Ajay Kumar from Bihiya, Parshuram from Shahpur, Shatrughan from Barhara and Arun Kumar from Piro, all villagers of Bhojpur district in Bihar, have one thing in common: their new-born babies are blind at birth. There are 16 other couples from different parts of this district whose infants are afflicted with the same congenital defect.

Bhojpur is in the grip of a mystery disease – 20 children have been born blind in the last three months.

The state government is clueless about the cause of the congenital blindness. Also, neither the government nor the district’s ophthalmologists have been able to ascertain the exact reason behind the recent spurt in such cases. Until now, they have been only hazarding guesses ranging from high arsenic content to the presence of lead and other poisonous metals in potable water.

In fact, so clueless are the authorities that they don’t even rule out the possibility of environmental pollution as a possible cause of the congenital blindness.

“It could even be electromagnetic radiation from mobile phone towers,” district civil surgeon Dr K.K. Labh said.

“We are trying to figure out what’s wrong,” Dr Labh added.

“Though nothing could be said for sure at the moment, I think environmental pollution may well be the reason.” Although many suspect the presence of dangerous levels of arsenic in drinking water in and around Bhojpur, Dr Labh practically ruled it out as a possible cause of the disease. “Arsenic poisoning would have been the cause had the cases been reported from villages close to a river. But that has not been the case,” he said.

He has sought a joint investigation by experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and environmentalists.

“The study will help us determine the exact cause of the congenital blindness,” Dr Labh said.

The Nitish Kumar government has confirmed congenital blindness in the case of 18 children in Bhojpur district, but maintains that the factors that led to it are not known.

“The health department is in touch with noted eye hospitals across the country and is also seeking the help of experts in the US,” Health Minister Nand Kishore Yadav said.

The issue of congenital blindness among children in Bhojpur was escalated to the Bihar legislative council when Bharatiya Janata Party member Kiran Ghai-Sinha expressed concern over the rising number of cases of the mystery illness.

She said 18 children were reported blind in the three blocks of Bhojpur district where high arsenic content had been found in underground water. She said it was a serious matter and that the government should take note of it.

Another member of the legislative council, CPI’s Kedar Pandey, asked the government to try to find out the cause of blindness within a fixed timeframe so that remedial steps could be taken at the earliest.

The matter came to light when Dr S.K. Kedia, a noted eye specialist based in Ara, the district headquarters of Bhojpur, encountered several cases of congenital blindness at his private nursing home, Lakshmi Netralaya. “The first two cases of congenital blindness came to my hospital almost six months ago,” Dr Kedia said. “I did not think anything was amiss at that time. But when such cases started coming to me at regular intervals in the past three months, I realised something was seriously wrong.” Dr Kedia said he discussed the issue with colleagues from the medical fraternity, but they did not take it seriously. “But I knew it was unusual because in my 20 years as an eye specialist, I had never come across cases of congenital blindness in such a large number. The last two cases came to me only two days ago, so the number has risen to 20.” The doctor said he decided to probe the matter further and sought the help of doctors at Aravind Eye Hospital in Madurai, Tamil Nadu. With the help of Aravind Eye Hospital, Dr Kedia said he got in touch with another expert from the US who happened to be a specialist in congenital blindness studies.

He said a team of experts had recently come to Ara to see the patients and assess the situation.

“The experts are studying the reports and we should be able to know the exact cause of the blindness at birth,” Dr Kedia said. “But it might take around six months to find out.” Dr Kedia said it was not certain if the congenital blindness was caused by arsenic, environmental factors, wanton use of medicines by expectant mothers or some another reason. “Each of these reasons has to be probed individually,” he said.

Bhojpur is one of the worst arsenic-affected districts in Bihar. Last year, the state government had admitted that high levels of arsenic had been found in the groundwater of 15 districts in Bihar situated on either side of the Ganga. People living in these areas are susceptible to an array of diseases like blindness, skin ailments, cancer of the intestine and liver disease.
A mystery disease

1. When and where

Twenty children have been born blind over the past three months in villages of Bihar’s Bhojpur district. The first such case was noticed by an eye specialist in Ara six months ago.

2. Possible causes

Though the government is clueless about what is causing the blindness, eye specialists listed many causes – from high arsenic content in water to environmental pollution and from electromagnetic radiation from mobile towers to wanton use of medicines by women during pregnancy.

3. Government action

While the state health minister said efforts were being made to contact noted eye hospitals across the country, the district civil surgeon suggested a joint probe by experts from the Indian Council of Medical Research and environmentalists.

4. Current status

Dr S.K. Kedia, who spotted the pattern, approached experts in Tamil Nadu and the US. A team visited Ara to study the cases.

Mystery blind births in Bihar

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