BHUBANESWAR : Mango kernel, poisonous roots and now “Bana Chakunda”, the list of plant-based eatables which sends Odisha’s tribals to the throes of death has just got longer, thanks to the report of the expert committee, appointed by Health Department, to investigate the Japanese Encephalitis (JE) deaths in Malkangiri.
As Malkangiri administration kicked off the house-to-house survey to identify the children in the age group of 1-14 years for JE vaccination from December first week, the outcome of the expert committee’s probe has baffled many. Anthraquinones and their derivatives, attributed to Cassia occidentalis toxicity leading to Encephalopathy, was found in the urine samples of five children, as per the report of the expert panel.
Experts argue that such evidence is baseless because no direct link of the toxicity to brain damage has been established. “Just its presence in urine cannot be the sole evidence to conclude that it caused death among the children,” said official sources.
The report is fraught with glaring loopholes. How could the expert committee conclude that anthraquinones is available only in “Bana Chakunda” seeds and not in other sources, including plants, in the district? Did the team carry out an extensive survey to ascertain it? It has not been addressed in the report. Similarly, there has to be a safe limit (quantitative) for any toxin in the human or animal body to take hazardous effect.
Did the team investigate and standardise the limit to know that a certain quantity of the toxicity has caused the death, experts wondered. Besides, food-based toxicity remains confined to an area where it is sourced. In Malkangiri, the deaths have been reported from all the blocks and even from Malkangiri town.
It is also questionable why children in the headquarters town also ate the seeds. The report appears to have ignored the dietary habits of tribals which would have provided a reason for the toxicity. The big question is did the children start eating the “Bana Chakunda” seeds in September this year? The deaths started in September-end and saw a spurt in October before showing a decline.
Was the flowering pattern of the plant taken into account? Besides, is the plant endemic to Malkangiri only where the kids eat its seeds? Interestingly, JE deaths were first reported in 2012 and an RMRC report had confirmed that it was JE and National Institute of Virology, Pune had investigated the samples back then. For next two years, there was no death reported while a smaller number of death was reported in 2015 but the State Government had been denying JE all along.
Going by the outcome of the expert committee, the tribal children did not consume the seeds in the past or the plants simply did not exist then. Going by the wave of outbreak and deaths, it was more or less clear that disease was vector-borne and as the vector-control measures were undertaken, the occurrence showed a decline. Another question that begs answer is Cassia occidental seed toxicity was attributed to deaths in Uttar Pradesh in 2006-07.
Why no caution was issued back then about the plant and the matter was not raised after 2012 when the first wave of deaths was reported. Besides, a Central team which visited Malkangiri recently to take stock of the situation had praised the State Health Department for its JE control measures. None raised Cassia occidentalis toxicity then too.
Experts say consumption of the seeds may, at best, be called a contributory factor but can not be conclusively attributed to deaths among children in the district. Meanwhile, the Malkangiri administration has constituted over 850 teams to make a house-to-house survey of children for vaccination. Each team would comprise Anganwadi workers, ASHA and teachers. The lists would be verified by the supervisors and thereafter by the block level medical officers. The survey will continue till November 23