COVID-19 spreads to rural India, villages ill-equipped to fight it

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -Hopes that India’s rampaging second wave of COVID-19 is peaking were set back on Thursday as record daily infections and deaths were reported and as the virus spread from cities to villages that were poorly equipped to cope.

Government modelling had forecast a peak by Wednesday in infections that have overwhelmed the healthcare system, with hospitals running out of beds and medical oxygen.

A record 412,262 new cases and 3,980 deaths were reported over the past 24 hours, taking total infections past 21 million and the overall death toll to 230,168, Health Ministry data showed.

“This temporarily halts speculations of a peak,” Rijo M John, a professor at the Indian Institute of Management in the southern state of Kerala, said on Twitter.

While the capital New Delhi and several other cities have been hardest hit so far, limited public healthcare, including a dearth of testing facilities, means the threat is grave in rural areas that are home to nearly 70% of the 1.3 billion population.

In the town of Susner in Madhya Pradesh state, patients were being treated outdoors under trees, on blankets on the ground.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government welcomed U.S. President Joe Biden’s announcement that he would support waiving intellectual property rights for COVID-19 vaccinations.

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Such a waiver would make vaccines more widely available, although it could take months for the World Trade Organization to hammer out any deal.

VACCINE PRODUCTION STRUGGLES

While India is the world’s biggest vaccine maker, it is struggling to produce enough doses. Its two current vaccine producers will take two months or more to boost monthly output to more than 110 million doses from 70 million-80 million.

Modi stressed on Thursday that Indian states must keep up vaccination rates and that healthcare workers involved in the inoculation campaign must not be diverted to other tasks, the government said in a statement after a meeting between the prime and his top officials.

Modi has been widely criticized for not acting sooner to suppress the second wave, after religious festivals and political rallies drew tens of thousands of people in recent weeks and became “super spreader” events.

Several Indian states have imposed various levels of social restrictions to try to stem infections, but the federal government has resisted imposing a national lockdown.

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The southern state of Kerala announced on Thursday it will impose nine days of curbs on movement from Saturday.

In the office of a Hindu crematorium in Delhi, the floor and shelves were overflowing with earthen pots, plastic packets and steel containers filled with the ashes of people who have died from COVID-19.

Practising Hindus collect the ashes of the dead a few days after the funeral for immersion in a river or sea, one of the rituals that they believe lead to salvation of the soul.

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“Our lockers are full. We cannot store any more ashes. We used to get around 40 COVID-19 bodies a day. We are now telling relatives to take the ashes with them on the same day,” Pankaj Sharma, a manager at the crematorium, told Reuters.

Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar acknowledged the healthcare system “stands exposed” after 75 years of under-funding by successive governments since independence.

“It’s very easy to say today that we should have put in more money. Now that I am in government … I can say it is not as easy as it sounds,” Jaishankar said on Wednesday.

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Amid disaster in India, coronavirus restrictions easing in US, Europe

Americans help India cope with its crushing COVID crisis

Mount Sinai medical system’s Dr. Ash Tewari and his team send ventilators and oxygen equipment to save lives

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Air travel in the U.S. hit its highest mark since COVID-19 took hold more than 13 months ago, while European Union officials are proposing to ease restrictions on visitors to the continent as the vaccine sends new cases and deaths tumbling in more affluent countries.

The improving picture in many places contrasts with the worsening disaster in India.

In the U.S., the average number of new cases per day fell below 50,000 for the first time since October. And nearly 1.67 million people were screened at U.S. airport checkpoints on Sunday, according to the Transportation Security Administration, the highest number since mid-March of last year.

‘HORRIBLE’ WEEKS AHEAD AS INDIA’S COVID-19 CRISIS WORSENS

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation giving him sweeping powers to invalidate local emergency measures put in place during the outbreak. While the law doesn’t go into effect until July, the Republican governor said he will issue an executive order to more quickly get rid of local mask mandates.

“I think this creates a structure that’s going to be a little bit more respectful, I think, of people’s businesses, jobs, schools and personal freedom,” he said.

May 3, 2021: Relatives of a person who died of COVID-19 mourn outside a field hospital in Mumbai, India.
((AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool))

Las Vegas is bustling again after casino capacity limits were raised Saturday to 80% and person-to-person distancing was dropped to 3 feet (0.9 meters). New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced that New York City’s subways will begin running all night again and capacity restrictions on most businesses will end statewide in mid-May. And Los Angeles County reported no coronavirus deaths on Sunday and Monday, some of which may be attributable to a lag in reporting but was nevertheless a hopeful sign that could move the county to allow an increase in capacity at events and venues, and indoor-service at bars.

EU officials also announced a proposal Monday to relax restrictions on travel to the 27-nation bloc this summer, though the final decision is up to its member countries.

“Time to revive EU tourism industry and for cross-border friendships to rekindle — safely,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said. “We propose to welcome again vaccinated visitors and those from countries with a good health situation.”

In Greece, restaurants and cafes reopened their terraces on Monday after six months of shutdown, with customers flocking to soak up the sunshine. In France, high schools reopened and a ban on domestic travel was lifted.

The once hard-hit Czech Republic, where cases are now declining, announced it will allow people to remove face coverings at all outdoor spaces starting next Monday if they keep their distance from others.

But with more-contagious variants taking hold, efforts are underway to boost vaccination efforts, which have begun to lag. The average number of doses given per day fell 27% from a high of 3.26 million on April 11 to 2.37 million last Tuesday, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Detroit, teams from the city’s health department have knocked on nearly 5,000 doors since the weekend to persuade people to get immunized. And Massachusetts’ governor announced plans to close four of seven mass vaccination sites by the end of June in favor of a more targeted approach.

“My plea to everyone: Get vaccinated now, please,” President Joe Biden said in Norfolk, Virginia. He stressed that he has worked hard to make sure there are more than 600 million doses of vaccine — enough for all Americans to get both doses.

April 24, 2021: Las Vegas is bustling again after casino capacity limits were raised Saturday, May 1, to 80% and person-to-person distancing dropped to 3 feet (0.9 meters). 
(AP Photo/John Locher)

“We’re going to increase that number across the board as well so we can also be helping other nations once we take care of all Americans,” the president said.

Brazil, once the epicenter of the pandemic, has been overtaken by a surge in India that has overrun crematoriums and made it clear the p andemic is far from over.

As the U.S. and other countries rushed in aid, India reported nearly 370,000 new cases and more than 3,400 deaths Monday — numbers that experts believe are vast undercounts because of a widespread lack of testing and incomplete reporting.

In Germany, Bavarian officials canceled Oktoberfest for a second year in a row because of the safety risks. The beer-drinking festivities typically attract about 6 million visitors from around the world.

And in Italy, medical experts and politicians expressed concern about a possible spike in infections after tens of thousands of jubilant soccer fans converged on Milan’s main square Sunday to celebrate Inter Milan’s league title.

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PM Modi says India shaken by coronavirus 'storm', U.S. readies help

NEW DELHI (Reuters) -India set a new global record of the most number of COVID-19 infections in a day, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday urged all citizens to be vaccinated and exercise caution, saying the “storm” of infections had shaken the country.

The United States said it was deeply concerned by the massive surge in coronavirus cases in India and was racing to send aid to India.

India’s number of cases surged by 349,691 in the past 24 hours, the fourth straight day of record peaks, and hospitals in Delhi and across the country are turning away patients after running out of medical oxygen and beds.

“We were confident, our spirits were up after successfully tackling the first wave, but this storm has shaken the nation,” Modi said in a radio address.

Modi’s government has faced criticism that it let its guard down, allowed big religious and political gatherings to take place when India’s cases plummeted to below 10,000 a day and did not plan on building up the healthcare systems.

Hospitals and doctors have put out urgent notices that they were unable to cope with the rush of patients.

People were arranging stretchers and oxygen cylinders outside hospitals as they desperately pleaded for authorities to take patients in, Reuters photographers said.

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“Every day, it the same situation, we are left with two hours of oxygen, we only get assurances from the authorities,” one doctor said on television.

Outside a Sikh temple in Ghaziabad city on the outskirts of Delhi the street resembled an emergency ward of a hospital, but cramed with cars carrying COVID-19 patients gasping for breath as they were hooked up to hand held oxygen tanks.

Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal extended a lockdown in the capital that was due to end on Monday for a week to try and stem the transmission of the virus which is killing one person every four minutes.

“A lockdown was the last weapon we had to deal with the coronavirus but with cases rising so quickly we had to use this weapon,” he said.

India’s total tally of infections stands at 16.96 million and deaths 192,311 after 2,767 more died overnight, health ministry data showed.

In the last month alone, daily cases have gone up eight times and deaths by 10 times. Health experts say the death count is probably far higher.

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The country of 1.3 billion people is on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe, Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, warned in an op-ed published Saturday in the Washington Post.

“Our hearts go out to the Indian people in the midst of the horrific COVID-19 outbreak,” U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said on twitter.

“We are working closely with our partners in the Indian government, and we will rapidly deploy additional support to the people of India and India’s health care heroes.”

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The United States has faced criticism in India for its export controls on raw materials for vaccines put in place via the Defense Production Act and an associated export embargo in February.

The Serum Institute of India (SII), the world’s biggest vaccine maker, this month urged U.S. President Joe Biden to lift the embargo on U.S. exports of raw materials that is hurting its production of AstraZeneca shots.

Others such as U.S. Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi urged the Biden administration to release unused vaccines to India.

“When people in India and elsewhere desperately need help, we can’t let vaccines sit in a warehouse, we need to get them where they’ll save lives,” he said.

India’s surge is expected to peak in mid-May with the daily count of infections reaching half a million, the Indian Express said citing an internal government assessment.

V.K. Paul, a COVID-task force leader, made the presentation during a meeting with Modi and state chief ministers and said that the health infrastructure in heavily populated states is not adequate enough to cope, according to the newspaper.

Paul did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

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India breaks global record for highest number of daily COVID-19 infections

India’s outbreak is rapidly worsening as it struggles with oxygen shortages, overwhelmed hospitals and rolling out vaccines for its large population.

India logged more than 314,000 new coronavirus infections on Thursday (Apr. 22), the highest number of single-day cases reported globally since the start of the pandemic, according to The New York Times. The previous record was set by the U.S. on Jan. 8 with a single-day count of 300,669 new coronavirus cases. 

India has recorded a total of 15.9 million COVID-19 infections since the start of the pandemic, second only to the U.S., according to the Johns Hopkins University dashboard. The country has logged more than 184,600 deaths in total, up by 2,104 since yesterday.

Crowds are forming outside overwhelmed hospitals and people are dying while waiting for oxygen, according to The BBC. Oxygen supply in the country has massively dipped, with some hospitals in Delhi completely running out and others running low. In a meeting on Thursday (April 22) Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked officials to find ways to produce more oxygen and to really crack down on anyone hoarding supplies, according to the BBC.

Hospitals are understaffed, intensive care units are full, nearly all ventilators are in use and the dead are piling up at crematoriums, according to The Associated Press. “I get numerous calls every day from patients desperate for a bed. The demand is far too much than the supply,” Dr. Sanjay Gururaj, a doctor at Bengaluru-based Shanti Hospital and Research Center told The Associated Press. “I try to find beds for patients every day, and it’s been incredibly frustrating to not be able to help them. In the last week, three patients of mine have died at home because they were unable to get beds. As a doctor, it’s an awful feeling.”

India is not implementing a national lockdown but regions are setting their own restrictions, according to the BBC. Delhi, where one in three people are testing positive for COVID-19, announced a week-long lockdown starting next week, according to The BBC.

India’s COVID-19 cases had dropped for 30 consecutive weeks starting last September; but then they started to rise again in mid-February. Experts told the AP that the country did not use that opportunity to vaccinate quickly enough to outpace disease spread and improve healthcare infrastructure.

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India administers about 2.7 million vaccine doses a day, which isn’t that much different than the U.S. pace of around 3.02 million doses per day. But India’s massive population of 1.4 billion people — more than four times the population of the U.S. —makes the vaccine rollout difficult. less than 10% of India’s population has gotten their first of two shots, according to the AP.

This extreme surge in cases may have been driven by the spread of new variants including a “double mutant” variant that seems to both spread more easily and evade some antibodies, a massive Hindu festival known as Kumbh Mela that millions of people attended, big election rallies and relaxed safety protocols, according to the BBC.

Originally published on Live Science.

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'Beg, borrow, steal': the fight for oxygen among New Delhi's hospitals

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – Pankaj Solanki, a doctor and the director of a small hospital in New Delhi, rushed to an oxygen vendor earlier this week to secure enough cylinders to keep 10 COVID-19 patients on the ICU ward breathing.

An empty tanker is seen outside an oxygen plant, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ghaziabad, on the outskirts of New Delhi, India, April 22, 2021. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

His supplies would only last until Thursday night, and so he has sent a driver out to try to find more.

“It is mental agony. I can’t bear it any more. What if something happens to the patients?” he told Reuters.

The last-minute scramble for oxygen at Dharamveer Solanki Hospital is playing out across the city and the country, which is facing the world’s largest surge in COVID-19 cases.

Hospitals in India’s capital, renowned for some of the best medical care in the country, are unable to guarantee basic services and thousands of lives hang in the balance – a stark warning of how India’s healthcare system is buckling amid the pandemic.

Big private hospital chains have not been spared.

This week in New Delhi, which has been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, seven Max Healthcare hospitals treating more than 1,400 COVID-19 patients were down to between 2 and 18 hours of oxygen left.

Staff at a major facility of the Apollo group had a harrowing night wondering if oxygen to 200 patients would run out. A tanker arrived at around 3 a.m., just in time, a source at the hospital said.

As panic breaks out at hospitals unable to admit some people with severe COVID-19 symptoms, police are being deployed to secure oxygen. In court, judges are challenging the central government to do more to address shortages.

In a late-night court hearing on Wednesday, Delhi justices called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government to “beg, borrow, steal or import” to meet the city’s needs. Officials said they were arranging supplies, but the judges weren’t convinced.

The state “cannot say ‘we can provide only this much and no more’, so if people die, let them die; that cannot be an answer by a responsible sovereign state,” said Justice Vipin Sanghi.

OXYGEN EMERGENCY

Demand for medical oxygen has soared. India recorded 314,835 new COVID-19 infections on Thursday, the highest tally anywhere during the pandemic. In Delhi alone, the daily rise is around 25,000.

Modi and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal have been criticised for failing to plan for the upsurge in cases.

On April 13, when Delhi recorded 13,000 new cases, Kejriwal told a news channel there was “no shortage of oxygen”. Five days later, he tweeted, “OXYGEN HAS BECOME AN EMERGENCY”.

“It is poor forecasting. Maybe they are not able to understand the gravity of the situation,” said Anant Bhan, an independent researcher of global health and bioethics.

“This is a reminder again – we should have extra reserves of oxygen. It shows poor planning.”

A senior gas industry source directly involved in supplying oxygen to Delhi hospitals said the city had moved too slowly in recent days in liaising with authorities and suppliers.

The city has few production units nearby and transportation is a challenge.

The Delhi government and federal health ministry did not respond to Reuters questions for this story.

At an INOX gas plant in the state of Uttar Pradesh, around an hour’s drive from Delhi, 12 trucks from cities across northern India were waiting to load oxygen on Thursday.

Six drivers told Reuters they had faced long delays, as surging demand from hospitals in the capital and elsewhere outstripped supply.

“We have been waiting for three days,” said Bhure Singh, one of the drivers. “Demand has increased and there is no gas.”

The plant has been visited by government officials and police, some carrying assault rifles. An Uttar Pradesh police officer said they had been given orders to escort trucks in some instances to make sure they reached their destination.

LAWYERS’ BARBS

At one Max facility in west Delhi treating 285 COVID-19 patients, oxygen supplies this week ran dry as authorities diverted their tanker to another hospital, the healthcare group wrote in a letter to Delhi’s health minister.

Staff had to borrow cylinders from another facility.

The medical superintendent at the Shanti Mukund Hospital, Kulwinder Singh, told Reuters on Thursday they were asking families of 85 patients who needed high-flow oxygen to make other arrangements because they had only two hours’ worth of supply.

Some hospitals in Delhi have run out of oxygen altogether, putting lives at risk, the city’s deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia said in a televised address. “After some time, saving lives would be difficult,” he warned.

In the capital, the fight for oxygen has reached the High Court, where judges convened late on Wednesday night to hear a plea from Max hospitals.

For around two hours, lawyers for Delhi and the federal government traded barbs over transportation challenges and supplies. Other lawyers shared real-time updates on oxygen tanks reaching hospitals in the city, and a judge took notes on demand and supply statistics for the capital.

The Supreme Court also intervened, saying Modi’s administration should draw up a plan to address shortages of oxygen and critical supplies.

“The situation is alarming,” the court said.

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Virus variants inciting India's second surge, epidemiologists say

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – The second surge of COVID-19 cases in India has swamped hospitals much faster than the first because mutations in the virus mean each patient is infecting many more people than before, epidemiologists and doctors say.

A patient lies in a bed as she is being shifted to a hospital for treatment, amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Ahmedabad, India, April 15, 2021. REUTERS/Amit Dave

India’s daily infections skyrocketed more than 20-fold to more than 200,000 on Thursday since a multi-month-low in early February, though the government has played down the role of mutants in the latest rise, the worst anywhere this month.

The world’s hardest-hit country after the United States has reported about 950 cases of people contracting the variants first detected in the United Kingdom, South Africa and Brazil.

“The point is that these variants of concern are still not on top of the discourse,” said epidemiologist Rajib Dasgupta of New Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University.

“Even if it is a new variant, you need to do the same things” to control it and treat patients “but it requires a different urgency to recognise that”, he said.

Doctors at New Delhi’s All India Institute of Medical Sciences have found that one patient is now infecting up to nine in 10 contacts, compared with up to four last year.

Scientists in Britain say the B.1.1.7 variant here, widely known as the British mutant, is 70% more transmissible than previous variants, and much deadlier.

The northern Indian state of Punjab, which has reported one of the highest recent fatality rates in the country, said late last month 81% of 401 COVID-19 samples it sent for genome sequencing were found to be the British variant.

“This virus is more infectious and virulent,” said Dhiren Gupta, a senior consultant at New Delhi’s Sir Ganga Ram Hospital.

“More children are reporting high-grade fever compared to last year. We have 35-year olds with pneumonia in intensive care, which was not happening last year.”

India has recorded 14.1 million infections and 173,123 deaths in total.

MASS GATHERINGS

The government has mainly attributed the big rise in cases to a reluctance to wear marks and crowding.

Still, it has refused to call off a mass gathering of Hindu devotees for a festival and its ministers are addressing tens of thousands of largely mask-less people in election rallies.

A scientist at the National Institute of Epidemiology said more evidence was needed to directly link the rise in cases to the variants, but that anecdotally that seemed to be the case.

“There are in-vitro experiments which can also tell us about the infectivity, the severity, how lethal it is, etc, but those are not completed yet, they are ongoing,” said Tarun Bhatnagar.

“We haven’t had a virus that has spread so rapidly, and we haven’t had the time to study it. Everything is on the go. We are dealing with it, being affected by it and studying it. The pace of every thing is too fast.”

But with crowding still common in many regions of India, “we are about to find out just how dangerous this strain is”, said Om Srivastava, head of infectious diseases at Mumbai’s Jaslok Hospital who also advises India’s worst-hit Maharashtra state.

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Tocilizumab cuts mortality risk in severely ill COVID-19 patients finds new trial conducted in India

covid

Tocilizumab, an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, improves outcomes in severely ill COVID-19 patients, finds the results of a new trial conducted in hospitals across India—one of the world’s most ethnically diverse countries. Researchers from the University of Bristol and Medanta Institute of Education and Research in India who led the study, published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, say it adds to existing evidence supporting the drug’s use in critically ill patients.

Conducted in 12 public and private hospitals across India, the COVID India Tocilizumab (COVINTOC) phase 3 randomized controlled trial aimed to investigate whether tocilizumab could prevent disease progression and mortality in hospitalized patients with moderate to severe COVID-19.

The study team recruited 180 patients (age 18-years and over) who had been hospitalized with moderate to severe COVID-19. Of these, 89 patients were randomized to receive standard care, and 91 patients were randomized to receive standard care plus tocilizumab.

Patients were followed up over a 28-day period to record any clinical improvement markers and assess disease progression from moderate to severe or from severe to death. The team also recorded whether patients experienced adverse events, serious adverse events, and post-treatment infections, and requirement for renal replacement drugs.

Analysis of the data revealed a subset of patients with severe disease in whom tocilizumab might have a reduced risk for progression to death if treated with tocilizumab in addition to standard care. However, clinical parameters or biomarkers to reliably identify these patients and the optimal timing of treatment during COVID-19 progression remain unknown. The authors conclude that while the study does not support the routine use of tocilizumab in adults with COVID-19 it adds to the growing evidence suggesting it may help some severely ill patients.

The trial’s lead co-author, Professor A. V. Ramanan from the University of Bristol’s School of Clinical Sciences, and Consultant Paediatric Rheumatologist at Bristol Royal Hospital for Children, said: “Our study suggests tocilizumab might still be effective in patients with severe COVID-19 and so should be investigated further in future studies. It adds to existing evidence from the RECOVERY and REMAP-CAP studies which demonstrate that tocilizumab does have a significant impact on reducing mortality in those with COVID-19 requiring oxygen or being ventilated.

“After dexamethasone (steroids), this is still the most significant advance in the treatment of COVID that has an impact in reducing deaths.”

Lead co-author Dr. Arvinder Soin, Chairman of the Medanta Liver Transplantation Institute at Gurugram, India, said: “While there were no differences in mortality and the need for ventilation among the two groups of patients when moderate and severe categories of patients were considered together, a subgroup analysis of the severe patients in the two groups showed a lower mortality at 28 days (8/50; 16 per cent) among those who received tocilizumab compared to those who did not (14/41; 34 per cent). The reported adverse events did not differ between the tocilizumab and standard care arms.

“Given the conflicting results of the previous studies, millions were wasted last year on the indiscriminate use of tocilizumab, as the precise stage of the disease in which to use the drug was not clear. This study plugs an important gap in knowledge on COVID treatment and clarifies that tocilizumab should be administered to patients in the severe category. Incidentally, last month, two major studies from the UK—the RECOVERY Trial and the REMAP-CAP study—have revealed similar findings, that tocilizumab reduces mortality among patients with severe COVID-19.”

The trial was conducted against incredible odds across multiple sites under difficult conditions in a country that has the second highest COVID-19 caseload in the world.

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India says new virus variants not behind rise in cases in two states

A woman carrying a child walks inside a railway station amidst the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Mumbai, India, February 23, 2021. REUTERS/Francis Mascarenhas

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India said on Tuesday new coronavirus variants were not responsible for an upsurge in cases in the states of Maharashtra and Kerala, based on evidence currently available.

Coronavirus infections in India rose by 14,199 in the past 24 hours to more than 11 million, according to health ministry data. Deaths rose by 83 to 156,385.

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Low-cost snakebite campaign in South India saving lives

Snakebite victims in India are getting the treatment they need quicker thanks to a public health campaign lead by a University of Reading researcher together with collaborators in India.

By working closely with a partnership of hospitals, doctors, schools and community groups, campaigners were able to provide life-saving advice and information to more than 3 million residents in rural Tamil Nadu, India, at a cost of only £25,000.

In the 12 months following the campaign, regional hospital TCR Multispeciality Hospital, Tamil Nadu saw the number of people seeking medical treatment for snakebites within the crucial first four hours increase from 60% to 95%, and most of these are aware of the campaign.

The results are outlined in a new paper published in PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases published today (Thursday 31 December 2020). The scientist behind the campaign now hopes the success of their pilot could encourage funding for a nationwide campaign across rural India and elsewhere globally following the same model, potentially saving thousands of lives by breaking myths around snakes and snakebites, and encouraging people to seek prompt hospital treatment instead of practicing inappropriate first aid or ineffective traditional treatments.

Dr. Sakthi Vaiyapuri, Associate Professor in Cardiovascular & Venom Pharmacology at the University of Reading led the campaign and personally spent time in the rural regions of Tamil Nadu, India raising awareness about how to get prompt medical help for a snakebite.

Dr. Vaiyapuri said:

“Snakebites are recognized by the WHO as a high priority neglected health issue, killing 140,000 people each year and leaving nearly half a million people permanently disabled, largely as a result of lack of sufficient public awareness about snakes and snakebites, and therefore delay in seeking prompt treatment.

“One of the major challenges in reducing the devastating effect that snakebites can have is ensuring that people in rural areas know that they need to get immediate medical help, especially in areas where people don’t automatically turn to healthcare in emergency situations. We know that many people in rural communities believe that plant extracts from traditional healers are an effective treatment after a snakebite. The Venomous Snakebites: rapid action saves lives campaign sought to promote a clear public message in harder to reach rural areas, with the simple message that seeking professional healthcare at the nearest hospital is best, and could save your life.

“We were delighted that the campaign was able to have a significant positive effect for the rural communities around Tamil Nadu that we worked with. The four-hour window is extremely important for someone to get effective treatment after being bitten by a venomous snake. Timely access to healthcare will save lives.”

The Venomous Snakebites: rapid action saves lives campaign was set up to counter the continuing prevalence of deaths and serious disabilities caused by snakebites in rural populations of South India.

The public health campaign used a mixed media approach including print and online media, plus social media posts, which had combined reach of more than 2.8 million people. The team from the University of Reading and partners including Dr. C Soundararaj and Dr. Stephen Paul from TCR Multispeciality Hospital along with NGOs, journalists, snake rescuers and social activists in India also ran public engagement events in schools and rural communities which reached more than 200,000 people in person.

In a follow-up questionnaire, 85% of school children who took part in educational events were able to recall the key information about how to seek medical help after a snakebite even after one year—up from 10% before the campaign.

As well as public engagement, the team also ran a symposium for healthcare professionals based in rural areas of Tamil Nadu and accredited by the Tamil Nadu Medical Council.

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India experts find traces of lead, nickel in patients’ blood

Indian health officials have found traces of nickel and lead in a few blood samples taken from hundreds of patients who have been hospitalized by a mysterious illness in a southern state, officials said.

The Andhra Pradesh state government said in a statement Tuesday night that investigations by experts from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences have not been able to ascertain the source of excessive nickel and lead particulate matter in the patients’ blood.

Reports from other tests by experts at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, including toxicology reports and blood cultures, are being awaited, the statement said.

Health officials and experts are still baffled by how the heavy metals got into the patients’ blood, and whether they are the cause of the mysterious illness that has left over 585 people hospitalized and one person dead in Andhra Pradesh. The illness was first detected Saturday evening in Eluru, an ancient city famous for its handwoven products.

People with the illness started convulsing without any warning, said Geeta Prasadini, a state health official.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy held a virtual meeting Wednesday with officials who included experts from India’s top scientific institutes. Reddy said 502 of the people with the illness have been discharged after showing improvement.


The patients showed symptoms ranging from nausea and anxiety to loss of consciousness.

What is confounding experts is that there doesn’t seem to be any common link among the hundreds of people who have fallen sick. All of the patients have tested negative for the coronavirus and other viral diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and herpes. The patients aren’t related to each other and don’t all live in the same area. They’re from different age groups, including about 70 children, but very few are elderly.

Initially, contaminated water was suspected. But the chief minister’s office confirmed that people who don’t use the municipal water supply have also fallen ill, and that initial tests of water samples didn’t reveal any harmful chemicals.

A 45-year-old man who goes by the single name Sridhar was hospitalized with symptoms resembling epilepsy and died Sunday evening, doctors said. Prasadini said his autopsy didn’t shed any light on the cause of death.

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