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Mystery illness in India baffles experts as more than 500 people are hospitalized

A boy is brought in a wheelchair to a hospital in Eluru, in southern India.
A boy is brought in a wheelchair to a hospital in Eluru, in southern India’s Andhra Pradesh state, where hundreds of people have been sickened by an unidentified illness.
(Associated Press)

Health officials and experts are still baffled by a mysterious illness that has left more than 500 people hospitalized and one person dead in the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh.

The illness was first detected Saturday evening in Eluru, an ancient city famous for its handwoven products. People started convulsing without any warning, said Geeta Prasadini, the director of public health.

Since then, symptoms that include nausea, anxiety and loss of consciousness have been reported in 546 patients admitted to hospitals. Many have recovered and returned home, but 148 are still being treated, said Dasari Nagarjuna, a government spokesperson.

Teams of experts have arrived at the city from India’s top scientific institutes. Different theories have been suggested and are being tested. The most recent hypothesis is contamination of food by pesticides.

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“Nobody knows,” Prasadini said.

What is confounding experts is that there doesn’t seem to be any common link among the hundreds of people who have fallen sick. All of the patients have tested negative for the coronavirus and other viral diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and herpes. They aren’t related to each other. They don’t all live in the same area. They’re from different age groups, including about 70 children. Very few are elderly, however.

Britain becomes the first Western nation to start vaccinating residents against COVID-19, launching a mass inoculation program that will take months.

Initially, contaminated water was suspected. But the Andhra Pradesh chief minister’s office confirmed that people who didn’t use the municipal water supply had also fallen ill and that initial tests of water samples didn’t reveal any harmful chemicals.

A 45-year-old man with the single name Sridhar was hospitalized with symptoms resembling epilepsy and died Sunday evening, doctors said. Prasadini said his autopsy didn’t shed any light on the cause of death.

The hypothesis currently being tested is that people ate vegetables tainted with pesticides made of organic compounds containing phosphorus. But this is based solely on the fact that such pesticides are commonly used in the area and not on any evidence, Prasadini said.

She said experts were testing to see if pesticides had contaminated fish ponds or spilled over to vegetables.

Andhra Pradesh state is among those worst hit in India by the coronavirus, with more than 800,000 detected cases. The health system in the state, like the rest of India, has been frayed by the virus.


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