TIRUNELVELI: Every time a woman gives birth, the relavives’ anxiety is shared in almost equal measure by people of this village in Tirunelveli that once had an alarmingly high number of people with speech and hearing problems.
The numbers have come down over the decades, but the fear remains till they do the first test that involves throwing a metal vessel on the floor, hoping the child would react to the sound. The second test has to wait a bit longer, till the infant can babble.
This is Kurichikulam, where people are now eager to marry off their children to suitors from outside the village out of fear. The majority here are Muslims — as much as 95 per cent, according to local Jamath president M Sindha Madhar (60). “Only people from this community were affected,” he said.
“There were over 50 orally and aurally challenged people in the village three decades ago,” recalled S Millath Ismail, a native and district secretary of Manithaneya Makkal Katchi.
“They formed one-tenth of the population at that time. The high number of children with disabilities brought experts, including those from abroad, to study the case. They tested water and soil of the area, and every other aspect that might have caused this. But the reason seemed to be much simpler,” added the Jamath president.
For decades, the Muslim families here used to get their children married only to those within the village. In a village that had only a few hundred people, everyone has become related to one another over the years, said panchayat president’s husband Ismail Fakeer, whose brother is among those with disabilities.
According to Dr S Suresh Kumar, head of ENT Department at the Tirunelveli Medical College Hospital, marrying relatives was the main reason for the problem. “The villagers were made aware of the health risks associated with this practice, encouraging them to marry outside,” added M P Ravanan, speech pathologist and audiologist at the hospital. He has been working in the village since 1997.
Once the villagers followed what they were told, a drastic change was noticed. Social worker Thoppi Mydheen said there are now 28 people with speech and hearing disabilities of a population of 1,500. Of them, only two were born with the disability in the last six years — both born to parents who are relatated.
“While the rest are getting married to persons outside the village, those with disability find it difficult to get life partners. Because of this, they continue to marry from within,” said A M Mydheen Pitchai, a middle-aged man from the village.
Though the villagers are relieved after witnessing the change in the recent decades, the fear has not been eliminated from their minds. Many are concerned that their grandchildren could have the disability. Though many are marrying from outside, marriages still happen within the village. But not all have children born with hearing or speech issues.
Pitchai added that a detailed scientific study should be conducted in the village to learn more about the problem, an opinion echoed by Dr Suresh Kumar, Ravanan and Millath Ismail. “If an in-depth research was done by a higher level institution, we will know the genetic reasons,” Dr Suresh Kumar added.