Doctors in Thanjavur government hospital have treated two infants for mercury ingestion in the last 15 days.

Dangerous practice of feeding mercury to infants back in TN Baby critical in ThanjavurImage for representation/
Health Health Thursday, August 29, 2019 - 15:39

It was a week ago that an infant with bloated stomach was rushed to Thanjavur’s Raja Mirasudhar Hospital (Thanjavur Medical College). Senior doctors in the hospital immediately suspected that the baby must be a victim of mercury poisoning. The doctors questioned the family, who admitted that the grandmother had suggested feeding mercury-laced betel leaves juice to the infant. In many parts of Tamil Nadu, a wrong belief prevails that giving mercury to infants cleans the toxins in the intestines.

What has baffled doctors at the Thanjavur Medical College is that this was the second case of mercury ingestion in an infant that the hospital has seen in the past two weeks.  Though one infant was discharged after seven days of inpatient treatment, the second infant is in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) of the hospital.

A practice that still exists

The infant who is now in the NICU was referred to Thanjavur from a hospital in Mayiladuthurai. The baby was brought into that hospital with severe inflammation of the stomach and in a critical condition. A simple X-Ray over the abdominal region detected the presence of mercury inside the digestive system of the infant. 

The X-ray of the second infant  (Image: Twitter/@spinesurgeon)

For senior doctors in Thanjavur, this case was a glimpse from the past.

Speaking to TNM, a senior doctor in the Pediatrics Department of the Thanjavur Medical College says that in his long service in the hospital, he has seen around 10 cases of mercury poisoning in babies. While most believe that ingesting mercury clears the intestine, there are few who feed it to infants to make them fair. 

“In the most recent case, the elders in the baby’s family saw that the abdomen was bloated and gave mercury-laced betel leaves juice, suspecting it to be a digestion issue. However, when the swelling increased instead of going down, the family rushed to the government hospital in Mayiladuthurai. The case was referred to our hospital from there,” he explains.

The previous case was of another infant, this time from Nagapattinam, who was admitted for mercury ingestion around 15 days ago. “That baby was discharged in a week’s time since mercury passed out of the body. It is after years that I am seeing mercury ingestion cases here,” the doctor adds.

Easy access to mercury

Mixing mercury powder with edible substances was a common practice years ago, says this senior doctor. “There used to be many such cases when I was doing my post-graduation, but then over time it had come down,’ he says.

Another doctor, also from Thanjavur, says that giving mercury to infants is a practice seen in the hinterlands of Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam and Cuddalore districts. “Common symptoms in infants with mercury inside them would be vomiting and inability to go to the toilet or pass gas. Powdered mercury is easily available in the ‘Naatu marundhu’ or native medicine shops, in the name of ‘Rasa podi’,” he says. Mercury in a powdered or vaporous form is more toxic than in metallic form.

Dr Pradeep, an Ayurvedic doctor from Mangaluru says that mercury is a commonly used substance in Siddha medicine, but should never be used on children. "Medicines with mercury are prescribed only for adults. For kids and infants, it is counter-productive. Even in medicines for adults, mercury should be purified in a certain manner before using it," he said.

Detection and treatment

Once ingested, it can be detected in an X-ray and the course of treatment would be to get the chemical out of the infant’s body at the earliest.

In the present case, the mercury was seen in the X-ray of the infant. “We have tried taking it out using laxatives but it has not moved till yesterday (Wednesday). Now we have administered a rectal washout to the infant, a treatment in which a catheter is inserted into the baby’s body to flush out toxins,” the senior doctor explains about the case. The baby is still in the NICU and is stable as on Wednesday.

The doctors say they see people from different backgrounds fall to such wrong practices.  

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