Farmers usually flee their native places when there is a drought or some natural calamity but in the Malnad region including Shivamogga, the reason is entirely different. The Kyasanur Forest Disease or Monkey Fever has struck fear in the minds of the villagers with many not daring to venture into the affected areas. SHYAM SUNDAR VATTAM studies the disease which is an annual phenomenon but this year has left the government and health officials terribly worried
Seventy-year-old Ganesh Hegade, resident of a village in Sagar Taluk of Shivamogga district is a worried man. He is the owner of a ten acre arecanut farm that fetches him a handsome income every year and wants to dispose off this property and settle down with his son in the USA. But no one is coming forward to buy this well-maintained farm. Those who are ready to buy are quoting a throwaway price taking undue advantage of the current situation in the Malnad region.
Mr Hegade, a resident of Benkatavalli village, is not bothered about the income from his ancestral arecanut farm but is really concerned about his safety and that of his wife. "We are too old to look after ourselves. But we were somehow managing the farm all these years. Now, we are really scared after hearing about the deaths of people due to monkey fever. We had seen KFD in the 60's and 70s' during which people moved from affected villages to safer places. Now we are seeing a similar situation", he added.
Ever since KFD popularly known as monkey disease surfaced, the lives of people living in villages adjacent to the forests have become miserable. The plucking of matured arecanuts has stopped as labourers do not want to risk their lives to work in the KFD-hit villages. The arecanuts are falling from the trees daily with no harvesting done on time. The areca farms that used to be abuzz with harvesting activities now look desolate with no sign of labourers or watchmen. Even the property owners are not visiting their farms fearing contracting the dreaded monkey fever.
This is the common scene in the picturesque Malnad region replete with greenery and tall areca plants. The outbreak of KFD this year has resulted in the death of innocent people besides affecting hundreds of villagers. This situation would not have cropped up had the state health department acted swiftly after three deaths due to monkey fever were initially reported in Sagar Taluk. The state government too turned a blind eye to this situation as both the Congress and Janata Dal (Secular) were busy saving the coalition government from poaching by the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party. The government woke up from its deep slumber only after the spurt in monkey fever cases reported from new places and after eleven people died in various hospitals.
For the people of Malnad, monkey fever had been an annual visitor during the arecanut harvesting season in villages surrounding Tirthahalli Taluk, and would disappear thereafter. The villagers would get two rounds of vaccination in a gap of two months to immunize themselves against a particular virus that triggers bouts of high fever and other ailments.
To their bad luck, even that vaccine went out of stock because of the great demand from other districts as well as from neighbouring Maharashtra and Goa. This particular vaccine is manufactured only at the Institute of Animal Health and Veterinary Biologics, Hebbal in Bengaluru. There is now pressure on the institute to manufacture around two lakh vials to meet the demand. In view of the heavy demand within the state, the institute has stopped supplying vaccines to Maharashtra and Goa till the situation returns to normal in Karnataka.
What triggered the outbreak? Experts attribute various reasons for the outbreak of KFD and one of them is the encroachment of forests and climate change. People living on the fringes of forests encroached upon forest land by clearing the trees and natural grass. This paved the way for the lush growth of lantana which is considered ideal for the spread of monkey fever. Even the change in climate has changed the natural cycle thus affecting plant as well as human life. In the recent past, the government had become soft on the encroachers of forest land thus indirectly becoming a catalyst for the spread of this disease.
"Any disturbance in the natural habitat causes problems and KFD is one of them. Monkeys don't come to urban areas if they get food. Because of dwindling forests, monkeys are now raiding farms in villages and towns" says an expert.
The first case of monkey fever was reported in Aragodu village panchayat limits in December last, and subsequently it spread to other taluks. From December 26, 2018 to January 6, 2019 nine persons have died of which three deaths were reported from Maggon hospital, Shivamogga because of lack of treatment. The government took serious note only after a second year PU student succumbed to monkey fever.
The first casualty was reported from Kulakari village of Sagar Taluk, followed by the second death from Aralagodu village and third death from Vatemakki village. In fact, all these villages have been identified as KFD prone. The health department knew about these deaths but reportedly failed to stock the vaccine. Unfortunately, the Taluk hospitals were not equipped to treat KFD cases and referred them to the district hospital. For senior citizens, the health department suggested that DMP oil should be smeared on the body before entering infested villages. But the oil was not available due to heavy demand and it cannot be manufactured overnight.
In 1957, a Virus Diagnostics Laboratory was set up in Shivamogga to conduct tests on animals and it takes 8-10 days to prepare the report. The lab had been modernised at a cost of Rs 1.24 crore with ultra-modern equipment but technical support is lacking. Locals feel that the setting up of a vaccination manufacturing unit in Shivamogga city would be helpful in dealing with the spiralling demand.
‘Monkey fever treatable if patients approach hospital well in time’
“Rain God can alone bring relief to people of Malnad from the infamous Kyasanur Forest Disease that has wreak havoc in new areas this time. Usually, a few cases of monkey fever are reported during the month of January, increase during the months of March, April and May and vanish once the monsoon sets in. However, this time, the monkey fever cases started pouring in during November and December months much to the surprise of everyone.
Even our department was caught off guard due to early breakdown of this disease. Before they could arrange logistics, at least nine people had succumbed to this fever. “The most surprising this time had been outbreak of this disease in newer taluks like sagara and Soraba than the usual Tirthahalli Taluk. Death of Nine persons created panic in the entire district and people living in fringes of forests left their houses to take shelter in the houses of their relatives. Labourers from other districts who come here to work areca nuts, also contracted fever since they were not vaccinated.
As this news spread like wild fire, labourers stopped coming to areca farms. “Panic among people has created artificial scarcity of the vaccine in the district and demand for it shot up. They had stock to meet the demand of Tirthahalli Taluk but not the demand of other places. Now, they have indebted for two lakh viles which are expected to arrive in the next two weeks once necessary tests. Even DMP oil is also being procured and sent to all taluks for people to apply it on their body before entering forest. “Where ever death of monkeys have been reported, 100 metres of the vicinity had been declared as hotspots and asked people to be careful while moving in that area.
A tick spreads the virus and causes the death of the monkey within 8-10 days. Massive awareness has been created in the entire district with the help of Asha and Anganwadi workers. Any one who had fever more than one day may go to nearest hospital to get treatment. This disease is treatable provided patients approach the hospital well in time,” Rajesh Surgihalli, district health officer, Shivamogga district....