October 16, 2006

There is an epidemic in Kerala (especially the backwater region of Kuttanad around Kochi and Alappuzha) of a viral fever. At least 40,000 people have been affected, and at least 200 have died of it.

It has been suggested that this is an attack of chikungunya, a mosquito-borne African virus. This is a new disease in this area: Kerala, being relatively clean and hygenic, does not usually suffer from epidemics. Another newcomer is dengue fever, another mosquito-borne virus.

The Kuttanad region (at least Chertala) has had a history of persistent filaria, or elephant’s-foot disease, another mosquito-borne disease, although the culprit is not a virus but a microscopic worm.

It is feared that there has been a mutation, and the Pioneer reports that there are fears that this virus is a virulent new strain, which explains the deaths: chikungunya is apparently not so devastating in terms of fatalities.

I sometimes wonder if there is a cycle: mankind discovers cures against known diseases, and nature then invents new ones to keep humans in check.

This disease, whatever it is, has come at an awkward time for Kerala’s backwater tourism. The prime season is about to begin: it’s November to March, and I am sure the epidemic is going to cause a lot of cancellations.

The beaches and the highlands, though, are not affected so much. It is possible that unregulated construction in the water-logged Kuttanand area has caused the creation of stagnant pools which breed the vector. There is something of a gold rush in Kuttanad along the edges of the Vembanad lake and the network of rivers and canals crisscrossing the area. It has become prime property for setting up tourist resorts, but as usual with scant regard to environmental consequences.

Those traveling to Kerala should carry along extra mosquito repellant and try to sleep under those suffocating but effective mosquito nets.


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