Mystery illness strikes town in India: Hundreds hospitalized and 1 dead
12/21/2020 // Virgilio Marin // Views

A mystery illness has left hundreds of people hospitalized in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh over the weekend and left one of them dead. The illness first appeared in the town of Eluru where residents presented epilepsy-like symptoms such as seizures and loss of consciousness, as well as burning eyes, nausea and vomiting.

District surveillance officer Dolla Joshi Roy said that 200 people were already discharged by Monday out of the 455 people with the symptoms. However, a 45-year-old man with the symptoms died due to a heart attack. State Health Minister Alla Kali Krishna Srinivas said that all patients tested negative for the coronavirus and that they're still looking into the cause of the illness.

This comes as India's coronavirus caseload remains the second-highest in the world, with Andhra Pradesh being one of the worst-hit states. Officials are worried that the illness will further overwhelm hospitals in the area.

Chemical poisoning linked to mystery illness

News of the illness broke out on Saturday when 45 people from different Eluru localities were sent to hospitals and clinics after complaining of strange symptoms. Many others soon exhibited a similar pattern of illness and were subsequently hospitalized.

"The people who fell sick, especially the children, suddenly started vomiting after complaining of burning eyes," an official from the Eluru Government Hospital told the Indian Express. "Some of them fainted or suffered bouts of seizures."

There's no sign that the illness is contagious and blood samples from the patients did not indicate a viral infection, including COVID-19, according to Srinivas. Several health specialists were already sent to the affected areas to investigate and had since conducted door-to-door surveys and water sampling. They were initially looking into possible food and water contamination or airborne poisoning but had later ruled out these two causes, according to Srinivas.


"It is some mystery illness and only lab analysis will reveal what it is," he added.

What's apparent is that the unexplained disease affects all age groups and is "very localized, the people affected all lived in the same city," said Roy. Medical teams are now looking into other chemical agents such as poisonous organochlorine substances, which contain DDT and are commonly found in pesticides used in agriculture and mosquito control. High-level exposure to DDT can cause vomiting, shaking and seizures, and while it is already banned in the United States, the toxic chemical is still used in India. (Related: The 'mystery ingredients' in fast food are actually industrial chemicals.)

The outbreak has increased the burden on the healthcare system in Andhra Pradesh, which currently has more than 800,000 active cases. Medical officials said that a number of hospital beds have been made available in Eluru in case the mystery illness brings in more people.

Mystery illness from 2016 solved

A December report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine has identified pulsed radiofrequency as the "most plausible" cause of the "Havana Syndrome," a mystery disease that first plagued American diplomats in Cuba and China back in 2016.

The committee tasked to review the cases determined that the syndrome was "consistent with the effects of directed pulsed radiofrequency energy," including a perceived force or pressure sensation within the head and on the face, hearing loss, tinnitus, impaired gait and loss of balance. However, they noted that other causes such pesticide exposure and psychological factors might have also contributed to the illness.

The Havana Syndrome first affected at least 26 Americans working at the U.S. Embassy in Cuba. The diplomats experienced debilitating symptoms such as the sudden onset of loud noises, headaches, dizziness, hearing loss and blurred vision. Americans working at the U.S. Embassy in China later experienced similar symptoms, indicating that the unexplained illness was not a regional one.

While the committee did not determine the source of the radiofrequency energy, it is believed that it has something to do with an attack on the United States. has more about mystery illnesses and events.

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