In India’s northeast Assam state, deadly mosquito-borne Japanese encephalitis cases have risen up to approximately five times in five years due to the warming weather and changing rainfall, health experts say.
According to data from the Assam health department, between 2010 and 2014, the number of annual cases increased from 154 to 744, with deaths increasing from 41 to 160. In 2009, the disease was recorded in only half of the state’s districts, but now is seen in all of them.
Doctors have suggest that climate change is the leading factor for the spread of the disease. The warming weather allow the mosquitoes to survive longer. Thus, as a result of this, the disease that used to spike from May to July, is now seen as late in the year as November.
Japanese encephalitis is characterized by high fever and inflammation of the brain.
Rabindra Nath Talukdar, a senior official of the Assam health department, mentioned that the current temperature is ideal for the Culex mosquito to breed. This ideal temperature would last up till October, which would lead to a rising number of Japanese encephalitis cases.
Talukdar added that, initially Japanese encephalitis occurred only in the upper part of Assam. However, it can now be seen in the lower parts of Assam district, and (now) cases have been reported from all the 27 district of Assam.
Health department officials said that the changes in agricultural patterns has played a role in the rise in encephalitis cases. Farmers are able to grow more corps of rice each year due to warmer conditions. This means that rice paddies with standing water, which offer a breeding ground for mosquitoes, would be available for a larger part of each year.
The Culex mosquito breeds on water in the agricultural land, and now since there is water on the field for several more months than before, it gives more time and space for the mosquito to breed,” Talukdar said.
After being faced with a surge in Japanese encephalitis cases, the Assam government has announced measures to tackle the issue, including more careful monitoring of cases.
Assam Health Minister Nazrul Islam described the situation as “a huge concern”.
“I have asked the senior officials of the health department to monitor the situation carefully and to report to me on a regular basis,” he said.
Assam Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has ordered officials of the Assam health department to develop a plan to control the disease, after the rapid spread of the disease led to a growing public outcry.
Gogoi said that the plan should incorporate the setting up of an intensive care unit in each district hospital for treatment of emergency cases, together with laboratory testing units. He has already asked the health department to obtain laboratory testing kits for rapid diagnosis of the disease, sufficient vaccines and medicines for the hospitals, and also to carry out intensive fogging in the affected areas.
Civil society groups and activists have however questioned why such steps were not initiated earlier.
“The data from the state health department itself shows that the disease has taken a deadly turn over the years in the state. Unfortunately the state machinery waited for the disease to go out of control, whereas it should have taken steps to control the disease much earlier,” said Sankar Prasad Rai, of the All Assam Students Union (AASU).
Several influential student groups of the state, including the Assam Jatiyatibadi Yuva Chatra Parishad (AJYCP) and the All Assam Students Union, have staged protests over the government’s failure to contain the spread of Japanese encephalitis.