Doctors are baffled, as the only thing they have to go on, is one otherwise harmless symptom.

This TN family has lost five people to a mysterious disease in 20 days
news Health Saturday, October 29, 2016 - 19:47

A tree-lined road leads to 44-year-old Leela’s house in Thandarai village in northern Tamil Nadu. Its walls are painted a soothing light pink. On Friday afternoon, Leela sat on the front verandah. She and her relatives were trying to absorb the loss of the past 20 days. They’ve buried five of their family members – including three children – in less than a month of the same mysterious illness. They had admitted one more person that day. 

The first one to die was Leela’s young son. Thirteen-year-old Christopher fell sick on October 3. “He began vomiting two hours after he ate. We took him to Thiruvannamalai government hospital.” The district hospital is 20km away and takes over an hour to reach. 

But the next day, they took him to the government hospital in Puducherry, about 100km away, after doctors told them to. But on October 5 when doctors there said he was fine, they returned home with Christopher. “He died that night,” says Leela, a daily wage worker.

“He never liked to study or go to school, I used to force him to go. Now look, he has left me and gone,” Leela says.

Barely a day later, 23-year-old Vinod Kumar, the son of Leela’s elder sister’s son. “He also began vomiting and we took him to a hospital in Vellore,” says Leela. He was declared brought dead. It was October 7. According to his family, Vinod was a person with intellectual disability.

The following day, six-year-old Nelson died the very next day. He was the son of Leela’s brother RK Das.

“My brother’s family had come from Bengaluru to attend the funeral service of my son Christopher. Nelson also began vomiting and died on October 8,” says Leela.

Only after seven-year-old Kritika Merlin’s death on October 18, did the family began to think that something was wrong. 

“We realized how quickly the four deaths had occurred in the family,” says Leela. The daughter of Leela’s brother Anthony Vimalraj, Kritika died the day she developed the otherwise innocuous symptom: vomiting. She was a Class 1 student. 

Image: Christopher (Left) and Kritika Merlin (Right)

After Merlin’s death, the villagers began sending the children away to their relatives’ houses in other districts and parts of the state. Any child between the ages of five and 17 was packed off the houses of relatives or friends in other villages and towns. “People think that the village is haunted,” says Leela.

Frightened by the deaths, Leela’s brother Anthony Vimalraj, sent his son to Chittoor district in Andhra Pradesh. “Everyone wants to keep their children safe,” Leela says.

The Tiruvannamalai Municipality began cleaning the water and putting bleaching powder all over the streets in the village.

But this did not stop the row of deaths in their house. Eighty-year-old Joseph, a relative of Leela’s had to be taken to the Thiruvannamalai government hospital on October 24, 2016 after he too began to puke. He died the following day.

The family is not just in mourning, but is also baffled. “Doctors keep saying that the patient is completely alright, only the pulse rate comes down,” says Leela. 

She just hopes this comes to an end soon. “We have neither slept nor eaten food properly in the last 20 days. None of us have even gone for work,” says Leela.

The mysterious illness appears to have only afflicted Leela’s family. Two people who passed away in the village during this time, died of other causes. Amudha (27) died after developing a blood clot in the brain and Munnusamy (70) succumbed to head injuries sustained during a fall. 

The nearest hospital is in the Tiruvannamalai government hospital, in the district headquarters, 20km away. But in the wake of these deaths, the district administration set up a Public Health Centre a week ago to ascertain the causes for the illness.  

Gram panchayat president Vijaylakshmi (42) says that the children are now returning to their homes. But according to her, only the three children died mysteriously. “Joseph died due to old age and Vinod Kumar was a mentally challenged person. The death of children might be due all the tiredness without sleep,” says Vijaylakshmi.

At the PHC, which is about 500 metres from Leela’s house, the doctors discuss possibilities. “We are still checking people and getting all tests done, we cannot tell anything more than this,” says a doctor who declines to give his name.

The ordeal for Leela’s family is far from over. On Thursday, Leela’s mother 60-year-old mother Christa was hospitalised. On Friday, it was Joseph’s daughter, 42-year-old Rita Mary’s turn. 

Leela has had enough, and wants to move away, but worry that she will not find work keeps her here. They will know in the coming days whether the mysterious illness claims more lives in their family. 

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