Four-year-old Harika, who is playing with her toddler sister Varsha, doesn’t understand why a mobile medical van is parked outside her house; nor does she understand what’s happened to her grandmother, Mali Bai, who is slowly walking into Gujjul thanda’s primary school. Her neighbour, a 10-year-old boy, is helping Mali Bai reach the medical camp inside the school.
The camp was set up on Tuesday after several people from the thanda (hamlet) turned up sick, with severe vomiting and loose motions, on Monday afternoon.
One by one, 40 residents of the hamlet in Durgam village panchayat were admitted to the Gandhari government hospital on Monday.
Even more are falling sick, and the primary school where Mali Bai is being taken has taken the shape of a temporary hospital.
But what is ailing the people of Gujjul thanda? Why does everyone have the same symptoms?
‘How can food poisoning hit everyone at once?’
Mali Bai says, the medical officers have told them it was food poisoning.
“But what have we eaten for us to get food poisoning?” she asks. “We ate our regular food and drank our regular water. Some people say it’s the food, others say it’s the water; but it’s the same food and water we’ve been consuming for years,” Mali Bai tells TNM.
At the medical camp where Mali Bai is getting a checkup, there are 15 doctors who are offering treatment and distributing medicines.
As we speak to Mali Bai, Seetaram Naik, who is sitting nearby, brings himself into the conversation. “If it’s food poisoning, as the medical officials claim, then how is it that every house in the hamlet had it on the same day?” he asks.
If the residents of Gujjul are confused about what has hit them, the doctors and health officials of the region are equally baffled.
Speaking to TNM, Dr Ravinder, who is supervising the medical camp, says that the food poisoning theory that the doctors first floated was no longer being seen as the cause of the mass illness.
“On Sunday, several families hosted a start-of-monsoon feast; even if we believe that the feast could have caused food poisoning - it isn’t possible for so many people to have been affected. Only 4-5 families participated in the feast,” says A. Narender, the sarpanch of Durgam.
The doctor confirms that there is no outbreak of diarrhea, cholera or any other seasonal epidemic either. "The collected blood samples were normal,” he says.
"We were suspecting massive food poisoning, but now, we cannot deny the possibility of water contamination in the hamlet,” Dr Ravinder says
No clean water for Gujjul Thanda?
At the medical camp, Neela B the taps in the hamletai sits very quietly, trying to console her crying baby, as she waits for her turn for the health checkup. Neela is dehydrated after Monday’s incident, and is now afraid of drinking the water from.
The taps are close to the drainage gutter, but there is little option to use the water from them. “We are afraid of drinking this water,” Neela tells TNM. “Our village does not have a mineral water plant. The government should do something about it, otherwise our children will be the first ones to be affected,” she adds
The officials in charge say, that water samples from the hamlet will soon be sent to a laboratory for testing.
The Gandhari Tahsildar (MRO), Laxman S says, “Although the doctors initially said it was food poisoning, we are taking other doubts into consideration and sending the water samples to the Rural Water Supply (RWS) scheme officials.”
‘No way to get to hospital’