Silence greets visitors at the Potrel and Usakapalli hamlets in Korukonda block of Odisha’s Malkangiri district. These hamlets border Andhra Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

After 24 children aged below five died of a disease suspected to be Japanese Encephalitis in less than two months, tribal people — mostly the primitive Koyas — are under the grip of fear of “evil spirits.” They are exposed to poor sanitary conditions as their houses are located near cow and pig sheds. Despite that they believe that these spirits are responsible for snatching away the lives of their young. On Wednesday, the residents of Usakapalli conducted a ritual, with egg, rice and some leaves and herbs, in the house of Irma Podiani, one of the five traditional healers in the hamlet (called disari or gunia) to keep the spirits away. “We think someone tried to steal the treasure belonging to the village deity (grama rakhi). Now she is furious and killed nine children from our village,” Irma told The Hindu.

Superstitions reign supreme in most tribal hamlets in the district, which has 60 per cent Scheduled Tribes out of a population of 4.5 lakh. “What can we do when they ignore our pleas for immediate reference to hospital and fall prey to quacks?” says Dr. S.B. Panda, Chief District Medical Officer. The suspected Japanese Encephalitis deaths were caused within 48 to 72 hours of the children developing symptoms such as vomiting, stomach-ache, fever and convulsions. “I took my son Babuli, 2, on a bike to Balimela, 10 km away. The doctor discharged him after giving a tonic. The next day he died and I had to bury him along with that tonic next day,” said a shell-shocked Irma Sodi (27), a paddy farmer.

Health workers say that despite their efforts to convince the villagers, they consume herbs and leaves given to them by the local healers. In 2009, villagers in Potrel, a village 20 km from Malkangiri, brought a healer from Mathili by pooling about Rs. 40,000 to perform a yagna after 10 children died due to viral fever.