V Keerthana’s one-year-old daughter Kavya has been ill for the past week. After frequent bouts of vomiting and loose motions, Keerthana, a resident of a slum in Taramani in south Chennai, took the child to a paediatric hospital where she was given packets of Oral Rehydration Salts to treat diarrhoea, like many others from the area.

“She is slowly getting better now,” said Keerthana. “But now we have started buying water cans instead of using tap water.”

The powerful winds of Cyclone Vardah blew through Chennai, destroying homes, power lines and foliage and now might have had another delyaed impact - a big outbreak of acute diarrhoea in this Taramani slum.

Around 150 residents have fallen sick with acute diarrhoeal disease, The New Indian Express reported. While several of the affected visited hospitals to treat diarrhoea, rumours of a cholera outbreak are spreading through the neighbourhood.

“I have heard that two people have been admitted for cholera in the hospital but there must be many more,” said A Chinnasubbiah, an autorickshaw driver. “They (the officials) won’t tell the public because then everyone will get scared. If somebody dies, then they won’t return the body either.”

According to the news report, one patient was referred to the Tondiarpet Communicable Disease Hospital in North Chennai with a file marked “suspected cholera”, besides the many others who were being treated for diarrhoea. However, the Director of Public Health told the newspaper that only 22 cases of acute diarrhoeal disease had been admitted to the hospital in Tondiarpet.

Rife for an outbreak

The quality of water that Keerthana, Chinnasubbiah and their neighbours have access to is generally poor and they say it got worse after Cyclone Vardah. “The corporation officials themselves have told us not to drink water from our taps,” said Chinnasubbiah. “We are getting the smell of sewage in the water.” Reports of water contamination after the storm have also come in from areas of North Chennai like Kilpauk, Royapuram and Nungambakkam.

Stagnant unclean water at a neighbourhood temple tank. (Photo: Vinita Govindarajan)

A cursory glance around this neighbourhood reveals broken drainage pipes that are under repair, large areas of stagnant water and open drains. “For the past five months, our drinking water supply has been mixed with drainage water,” said Chinnasubbiah. “But after the rains, things became much worse. Additionally, we were forced to drink from the tap because for a few days after the cyclone, the supply of cans was less.”

Residents across several streets came echoed the same complaint. “Every household in this street had people who were vomiting or had loose motions,” one said. The residents said that after large numbers of them visited doctors, corporation officials have started door-to-door water chlorination drives.

“At least ten trucks passed through this area the other day, checking the water and informing all of us not to drink it,” said Maliga Babu, a social worker in Taramani.

Drainage repair work in Taramani. (Photo: Vinita Govindarajan)

Preventive action

Meanwhile, medical camps have been set up in Taramani and surrounding areas to treat the diarrhoea cases. At noon on Thursday, officials from the Health Department and doctors sat under a tent beside a stack of ORS packets.

“This is only a preventive action taken by the Health Department,” said the health officer at the site. “There are many slums here, so immediately after the Vardah cyclone, the government has initiated medical camps in this area. We are checking for good supply of water and chlorinating the water to prevent diarrhoea. We are doing extra work in low lying areas where there is water stagnation. Disease outbreaks are expected after heavy rains. But there are no cases of cholera.”

B Dhanraj, former Chief Vector Control officer of the Chennai Corporation, said that it is normal for people to be infected by water borne diseases after rains.

“As long as it is not cholera, it is not a threat,” said Dhanraj. “If it is, then that would be a serious thing. The patient would not discharged immediately. There would be a threat till he stopped spreading the bacteria. The corporation officials will then go to the area to find the source. There must be a lot of other cases also that were not reported to the hospitals.”

Even though they say there is no cholera outbreak, corporation officials seem to have implemented all these cholera-preventive measures.

Medical camp at Taramani. (Photo: Vinita Govindarajan)

Dr S Elango, former director of public health, open air defecation was one of the main reasons for the spread of an epidemic. This could bring flies and spread diseases through water especially during the rainy season, he said.

“Acute diarrhoeal cases are 99% water borne, and to some extent food borne,” he said. “Tests should be taken to check for cholera in the area. If even one or two percent of population are diagnosed with it, then all precautionary measures for cholera must be taken.”