75 die of malaria in Assam, over 300,000 affected
By Syed Zarir Hussain
Apr 28, 2006, 13:43

The death toll from a malaria epidemic sweeping Assam state has gone up to 75 while 335,000 people are affected by the disease, health officials said Friday.

"So far 75 people have died of cerebral malaria since the disease struck in the state in the beginning of April," Assam Health Minister Bhumidhar Barman told IANS.

Malaria has been detected in other northeastern states too, but fatalities have been reported only in Assam, which has a population of 26 million. The worst-hit eastern district of Lakhimpur has reported nearly 30 deaths and up to 150,000 affected.

The fatalities are high in Assam because many people are visiting quacks and sorcerers to treat the parasitic disease caused by the bite of the anopheles mosquito.

Ratneswar Payeng, an elderly Assamese, was suffering from high fever for the past 12 days and was shifted to a hospital Wednesday in Lakhimpur, about 400 km east of Guwahati.

"Initially we thought someone in the village had cast some evil spell on our father. We approached the local priest and performed various rituals, including sacrificing a hen to ward off the evil spirit from his body," Payeng's son Borgoram told IANS.

Payeng's health condition deteriorated as the priest failed in his attempt at curing the 70-year-old tribal. Doctors at the hospital where Payeng was later shifted to said his condition is critical.

"We are at a loss to find a large number of people still going to quacks and sorcerers to treat a sick person rather than bringing them straight away to a doctor," the health minister said. "The delay in bringing a person to the hospital complicates the illness and is one of the reasons for the fatalities."

Superstitious beliefs, black magic and demonology are integral to tribal custom in parts of Assam, Tripura and other northeast states. "Our health workers are now working overtime in spreading awareness in rural areas not to be wooed by quacks or sorcerers, and instead approach a doctor or come to the hospital when someone is sick," Barman said.

The northeast is known as "malaria zone" with the disease claiming an estimated 500 lives annually. At least 230 people died in Assam last year of malaria. The dangerous malaria season lasts three to four months beginning in mid-March. Cerebral malaria is the severest form of the disease and can cause seizures, comas and other problems.

Health officials in adjoining Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland said there were cases of malaria in their region too, but it has not assumed an epidemic proportion like in Assam.

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