By Amar Guriro
KARACHI: A strange disease has spread in the coastal belt of Karachi paralysing the lower limbs and some times the arms and other body parts of the victims, the majority of whom are children.
Earlier, there was an outbreak of a similar disease in Achhro Thar (White Desert) of district Sanghar and other areas of the Tharparkar desert. Now this disease has taken its toll in the Rehri Myan Goth in Bin Qasim Town, where office-bearers of the Pakistan Fisher Folk Forum (PFF) claim that there are about 200 victims, most of them children.
The residents of the area told this scribe that the victims of the disease are first afflicted with fever for a few days and then their lower limbs and sometimes the arms and other body parts are completely paralysed. Though this disease remains unidentified, geologists contend that it is caused due to the consumption of fluoride-contaminated underground water. Experts have also expressed fear that the disease could engulf the entire coast of Sindh. The victims mostly blood-related, and in some cases, there are around six patients in the same family.
Muhammad Hussain, a resident of Rehri village, is a fisherman who has braved many cyclones in the Arabian Sea during his fishing voyages, but is completely helpless to do anything for his four children, who have been paralysed. His three sons, Nazir, Dilbar and Mubarak, and a daughter Hajira, were normal, but they suddenly feel victim to the disease.
“My first child developed a fever one day and within a week, he was paralysed,” he said narrating his woes. “First we thought it’s weakness due to the fever, but later we realised his lower limbs were paralysed.” He took his children to several doctors and also sought the help of faith healers, but all went in vein. Sami Memon of the PFF said his organisation has compiled a list of the victims’ names and most of them are children. “We have a list of about 173 children affected by this disease, but there are several other victims whose names we could not collect,” he said.
According to the PFF list, some of the victims include fisherman Esa, who is suffering the same ailments following the paralysis of his four daughters Fatima, Sheraan, Bhaan and Ameer Bano; Aamnat, daughter of Ismail; Hyder Ali, son of Allah Dino; Ibrahim, son of Mehmood; Hussain, son of Hassan Ali; Nazia, daughter of Ali Hussain, Mohammad Noor’s son Moosa and daughters Hawa and Nadia; Hakeem, son of Abdullah; Azam, son of Umar; Usman, son of Ismail, and Abdul Hussain, son of Ahmed Ali.
When this scribe contacted Sindh Health Minister Dr Sagheer Ahmed for his comments on this issue, he was not available, however his PRO said the issue does not come under the jurisdiction of the provincial health department, and the CDGK EDO (health) might be the right man to contact. When this scribe asked him how this matter that concerns the lives of so many children does not come under the jurisdiction of the Sindh government, he suggested contacting the provincial health secretary.
But that proved to be anything but useful as Sindh Health Secretary Hashim Raza Zaidi simply refused to comment on the issue. This wasn’t surprising since the health department avoiding talking to media personnel over such issues has become a routine practice. CDGK Health Group of Offices Executive District Officer Attur Das Sanjnani claimed that the issue was nothing more than media-created hype. “There are just four children of a family residing in Ibrahim Hyderi whose lower limbs have been paralysed,” he said.
“We have conducted a complete survey of these areas and found that the disease is hereditary and for such diseases, there is no treatment even in advanced countries.” The residents of the area told this scribe that since the creation of Pakistan, the people living in the coastal belt of the city are yet to receive basic facilities such as healthcare, educational institutes and above all drinking water supply schemes.
“Most of the residents of Ibrahim Hyderi, Rehri Goth and others areas of the coastal belt of the city are consuming the underground water, but no one knows about the quality of this water,” said PFF’s Sami Memon.
“It could possibly be the increasing level of fluoride in the underground water that has caused this mysterious disease,” said renowned geologist and faculty member of the Department of Geology, University of Karachi, Prof Dr Shahid Naseem. Dr Naseem has visited about 400 small villages of district Umerkot and other parts of Tharparkar to acquire water samples for laboratory testing.
According to his findings, the underground water had high levels of fluoride. Earlier, this scribe reported the outbreak of a similar disease in Achhro Thar in district Sanghar where around 17 people had dead in only one village and several others were paralysed.
“The disease has not only spread in Karachi, but perhaps spread along the entire coast of the province and also in Balochistan up to Iran, as we have received reports of the same disease affecting people in Quetta and a small village on the Iranian border,” Dr Naseem said.
“We have to conduct a detailed survey of the coastline to learn more about this disease.” Dr Naseem said arsenic contamination was first reported in Punjab, but now the problem has moved on to Sindh. “The contamination of underground water with both arsenic and fluoride could possibly be the cause of this disease, but only a detailed survey can confirm this,” he said.