Sitting on a decaying wooden log outside his unfinished house in Takia Magam village, Mohammad Sultan Bhat curses the day he was born. After a pause, 68-year old Bhat coughs, wipes his nose and signals other family members to emerge from behind the main door.
“We are a cursed people,” Sultan says regrettably, while opening a file cover containing some prescriptions and lab reports.
Takia Magam is a quaint village made up of clusters of old, mud-and-brick houses on a steep mountain, deep inside the forests towards the south of Kashmir Valley, some 90 kilometers Srinagar.
Lack of resources and abject poverty in Takia Magam is compounded by the lack of education and healthcare facilities and access to clean drinking water. There is hardly any sign of government and people like Bhat have stopped complaining.
Government in Denial
One of Bhat’s five sons, Jamal, was diagnosed with Hepatitis-C two years ago which has ravaged his large family as well as Takia Magam. In January 2013, after months of denial, the J&K health department acknowledged the presence of Hepatitis-C in the village. Jamal and his wife were among the first to test positive for the deadly virus. Of the 16 family members, so far seven have tested positive.
“The treatment is very costly. I had to sell my land to purchase medicines for my sons. If they survive, at least they can take care of the family,” Bhat said.
Ignored for years and devoid of any proper medical facility or awareness of the disease, Takia Magam became a breeding ground for the viral infection, also known as the “silent killer”, in 2013. As the government sat on the matter, a study by SK-Institute of Medical Sciences, a premier tertiary-care hospital in Srinagar, joined by a group of top doctors, threw up alarming results: Hepatitis-C had entered nearby villages of Sundbrari, Saagam, Hangalgund, Zalangam and Tangpawa.
Here’s an account of a Zalangam resident, Watch!
Of nearly 10,000 people who showed up for investigations from these villages, nearly 3,000 tested positive. In Takiam Magam alone the results were scary: 1,100 villagers of different age groups had contracted the infection. A large number of people fled their villages.
Those infected were forced to travel to Srinagar every week for treatment that would last 24 weeks and cost between Rs 3 and 3.5 lakh per patient. Those who had property, mainly orchards, took to distress selling.
An embarrassed health department, which was in denial since 2013, finally woke up to the alarming situation, tasking a probe team to recommend measures to contain the virus’ spread. Inexplicably, the 100-page report was trashed and now two years later the killer Hepatitis has not shown any sign of abating, according to Dr MS Khuroo who was part of the team.
The virus has penetrated our healthcare system.
— Dr MS Khuroo, credited with the discovery of the Hepatitis-E virus
“The state’s blood banks are infected and unless immediate steps are taken we may end up like Egypt where liver cancer is a leading cause of death,” Khuroo, who had walked out of the panel, said.
Origins of the Disease
There is no clear evidence to suggest how the virus infected people and spread across South Kashmir’s villages. It is said that the infection could be traced to the use of “sub-optimal” medical practices of a “quack”, some 25 years ago.
Hepatitis targets the liver. On initial contact with human blood, a patient complaints of mild fever and body aches, followed by vomiting. The virus then lies dormant before mutating in the liver, but with no visible symptoms, till the infection reaches a critical stage where it causes cirrhosis and liver cancer.
The situation now is alarming, for cases of Hepatitis-C infection have been reported from Srinagar and Anantnag district. And yet, the health department has not collated data capturing the real extent of the disease. Health Department Secretary, Shantamanu said the government has sent a proposal to the Centre, seeking financial support. “We are awaiting approval and taking precautionary measures and collecting random samples for areas where cases have been reported,” he said.