When Nipah Virus Hit Siliguri in 2001, It Became a Ghost Town
I was barely in high school in 2001 when a couple of patients in my hometown, in Siliguri, succumbed to a bout of flu in January.
It would have gone unnoticed if Siliguri wasn’t a small town where information gets passed on like a game of Chinese Whispers before the newspapers can get a hold of it.
Before we knew it, the town was starting to get a little uneasy.
The initial symptoms were fever, headache, drowsiness, disorientation and then straight to coma. None of those initially infected actually survived it.
But it was still under control. If it was influenza or a viral infection the doctors would figure it out, and until then a few precautionary measures had to be taken.
Doctors were speculating that this was an outbreak of encephalitis. At least that was a known disease which had a known treatment. But a small town being a small town had started murmuring about the plague making a comeback.
A week into this outbreak and we still had no idea about what the mystery disease actually was. The entirety of our knowledge was based on hypothesis, rumour, and gossip.
Parents were doing the best they could for their children: hand sanitisers were to be used rigorously and flimsy masks were to be worn throughout the day in school, which in retrospect was baloney if we only had the slightest idea about what had gripped Siliguri.
This was certainly a cause for alarm but for us in school, it was more sad than scary. Dr Maity happened to be the father of one of our classmates. We had seen her last when a nun had pulled her out of the class to break the news of her father’s demise. It was assumed that she was sent packing to a boarding school far from this diseased town.
A few other doctors, nurses and paramedics were taken severely ill in this hospital. They were all admitted to North Bengal Medical College while Medinova Florence was sealed off. Ten among those infected medics later died.
Soon, Siliguri started resembling a ghost town. The roads were deserted, shops shut and schools were closed for a week. Even doctors who were clearly at a higher risk were apprehensive of their patients. But worst of all was that some doctors secretly fled.
Private nursing homes and private chambers are prevalent in Siliguri as in most places in India, so private medical practitioners who had gone for “vacations” or were “out of town” or “visiting in-laws” were not actually accountable.
Some doctors were apprehended at Jalpaiguri Railway Station and Bagdogra Airports by citizens before they could slip away.
Red-faced politicians had flown in doctors from Kolkata. Patients were quarantined immediately. Out of the 66 cases reported, 49 had died. By late February, no new cases were reported. It was not a cure, but perhaps the quarantining is what had worked. But right till the end, nobody knew for a fact what the fatal fever that had hit the town was.
The town limped back to normalcy by and by. The word ‘Nipah’ didn’t ring any bells when a few deaths were reported from Kerala. It wasn’t until I read cases of the first outbreak in Kerala that I finally knew what had ransacked Siliguri in the winter of 2001.
Also Read : Delhi Government Issues Advisory on Nipah Virus