INDIA: Mystery illness investigators in India find excessive levels of lead, nickel in patients’ blood

December 2020 CBC; Indian health officials have found traces of nickel and lead in a few of the blood samples taken from hundreds of patients who have been hospitalized by a mysterious illness in a southern state, officials said.

The Andhra Pradesh state government said in a statement Tuesday night that investigations by experts from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences have not been able to determine the source of excessive nickel and lead particles in the patients’ blood.

The government was still waiting for results of other tests, including toxicology reports and blood cultures, being conducted by experts at the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, the statement said   

Health officials and experts appeared to be baffled by how the heavy metals got into the patients’ blood, and whether those metals caused the mysterious illness linked to the death of one person and the hospitalization of more than 585 others.

The illness was first detected Saturday evening in Eluru, an ancient city famous for its handwoven products.

People with the illness started convulsing without any warning, said Geeta Prasadini, a state health official.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Y.S. Jaganmohan Reddy held a virtual meeting Wednesday with officials who included experts from India’s top scientific institutes.

Reddy said 502 of the people who went to hospital were discharged after showing improvement.

No apparent common link

The patients showed symptoms ranging from nausea and anxiety to loss of consciousness.

What is confounding experts is that there doesn’t seem to be any common link among the hundreds of people who have fallen sick.

All of the patients have tested negative for the coronavirus and other viral diseases such as dengue, chikungunya and herpes.

Those who became ill aren’t related to each other and don’t all live in the same area. They represent different age groups, including about 70 children, but very few are elderly.

Initially, officials suspected contaminated water. But the chief minister’s office confirmed that people who don’t use the municipal water supply have also fallen ill, and that initial tests of water samples didn’t reveal any harmful chemicals.

A 45-year-old man who goes by the single name Sridhar went to hospital with symptoms resembling epilepsy and died Sunday evening, doctors said. Prasadini said his autopsy didn’t shed any light on the cause of death.

Andhra Pradesh state is among those worst-hit by the coronavirus, with over 800,000 detected cases. The health system in the state, like the rest of India, has been frayed by the virus.

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