Doctors turn activists to fight Paraquat poisoning in western Odisha

Thanks to their efforts, the number of fatalities from the agricultural herbicide has fallen at VIMSAR

It may appear strange to see a few young doctors with stethoscopes around their necks talking to relatives of patients on the use of a particular herbicide in agricultural fields. Yet, this can be seen regularly in the corridors of the Veer Surendra Sai Institute of Medical Sciences and Research (VIMSAR) here.

What made these doctors take up such a subject? The VIMSAR, a major public healthcare centre for western Odisha and parts of Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, has registered 157 deaths, mostly of farmers, since September 2017. The reason behind these deaths is the consumption of Paraquat — a herbicide used in agricultural fields. The tragedy stirred the conscience of young doctors, forcing them into the role of medical activists.

Fatal impact

The young doctors have undertaken hunger strikes, sent missives to their bosses, tried to sensitise the media, and held discussions with farmers’ associations. Together, they have drawn attention to the fatal impact of Paraquat — very few have survived after consuming it.

The constant pressure from the young medicos has forced the State government to withdraw its subsidy and stop the promotion of Paraquat. But what’s even more elating is the fall in the number of patients who arrive at VIMSAR with Paraquat poisoning over the last few months.

“It gives me immense satisfaction to stop people from coming to the hospital and then seeing them slowly succumbing to Paraquat poisoning, which does not have any antidote,” said Shankar Ramachandani, Senior Resident Doctor in VIMSAR, who has spearheaded the movement against use of Paraquat.

‘Not comfort zone’

“I cannot forget the episode when a woman put all her gold ornaments before me and literally touched my feet, urging me to save her husband who had consumed Paraquat. It forced us to come out of our comfort zone,” said Dr. Ramachandani.

The records say that, between September and December 2017, as many as 32 persons were admitted with Paraquat poisoning to VIMSAR. Of them, 31 did not survive, and one patient left against medical advice.

From January to December 2018, 64 patients with Paraquat poisoning came to the hospital. Of them, 59 died, one survived and four left the hospital. From January to August 2019, 53 persons were admitted with Paraquat poisoning; the doctors could not save 50 of them, while relatives shifted three patients to other hospitals.

From September 2019 till date only 24 patients with Paraquat poisoning have been admitted to VIMSAR. Of them, 17 died while six have left with the advice of doctors, and one person died outside VIMSAR.

Not all Paraquat poisoning deaths occur at VIMSAR; people could be dying in other district-level hospitals too.

No antidote

“Paraquat consumption leads to pulmonary fibrosis and patients find difficulty in respiration. Similarly, kidney failures occur. Even if a person survives, he will not be fully fit as pulmonary fibrosis worsens with the passage of time. Paraquat does not have antidote. We are treating patients symptomatically,” Dr. Ramchandani said.

The vast majority of the population in western Odisha and its bordering districts in Chhattisgarh are dependent on agriculture. Crop failures and family disturbances often drive people to look for poison to commit suicide and Paraquat, which is easily available at homes as well as in neighbourhood shops, becomes an “obvious” choice. There have also been cases of people becoming accidental victims when they absorb Paraquat while sprinkling it in agricultural fields.

“We spread the message about [the danger of] Paraquat by talking to people and conducting awareness campaigns with farmer organisations,” said Dr. Rajesh Mohanty, who also serves at VIMSAR.

VIMSAR’s medicos are demanding a complete ban on Paraquat, which is already in place in some States.

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Printable version | Apr 5, 2020 4:13:46 PM |

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