In 2011, a woman was admitted to a private hospital in Gujarat complaining of abdominal pains and persistent vomiting. A few days after being admitted to the hospital, the woman was dead. Soon after, Dr Gagan Sharma and nurse Asha John, who had attended to the patient, died following similar symptoms.
The condition in question is a viral disease known as Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (or simply Congo fever). The disease has a mortality rate of around forty percent, and has few treatments, with no vaccine currently available. While this outbreak in 2011 had only a small number of cases, the mortality rate made the disease a concerning prospect.
Fears are currently abounding as seventeen people are confirmed to have Congo fever in Gujarat while a further three have tested positive in Rajasthan. At the time of writing, two people are reported to have died in Gujarat and three have died in Rajasthan.
The Rajasthan Health Department has sent more than 100 samples for testing to the National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune. It is hoped that the testing will show the true extent of the infection and allow for attempts to isolate the disease.
For the predominantly tick-borne infection to occur in two states simultaneously could imply that the disease is spreading rapidly, giving way to a larger outbreak. Due to the limited capacity for treatment of the disease, it may be a difficult condition to isolate. This is exemplified by the 2011 outbreak, in which two medical staff treating the initial patient died of the same disease.
As a tick-borne condition the disease commonly occurs in those who work with livestock animals. However, the disease is not common to India, being mostly found in the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia. If the disease takes root, it could cause major outbreaks in India’s rural regions where work among livestock is common.
Human-to-human transmission can occur resulting from close contact with the blood, secretions, organs or other bodily fluids of individuals infected with Congo fever. In particular, the passage of the disease through bodily fluids could become a key concern in areas where sanitation is lapsed.
India has had recent success stories in curbing outbreaks of diseases such as the Nipah virus. Efforts must be made to prevent yet another infectious disease taking root. Owing to the considerable mortality rate, India cannot afford to allow the deadly Congo fever virus to proliferate among its people.