India claims plague epidemic is beaten

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The Independent Online
THE PLAGUE that has swept across India over the past few weeks is ending. The World Health Organisation claimed the scourge has been defeated in Surat, the western city with most victims, even though two more died there yesterday. In other cities, the disease is also waning.

In his office at Delhi's Infectuous Diseases Hospital, the haggard medical superintendent, C B Pandey, leaned back in the chair which had been his command station and temporary bed for the past 18 days and sighed with relief. 'Today is the first day we have had no fresh cases. The panic is over,' he said.

Outside, a couple of patients wandered in the garden, chatting through surgical masks and watching a peacock glide from a tamarind tree. Since the plague alert flashed in Delhi on 5 October more than 1,049 suspected victims have been brought to this hospital with high fevers and swollen lymph glands. Yesterday, only 13 remained, and they will be released within days, doctors said. 'I think,' Mr Pandey ventured cautiously, 'that the plague is finally over now.'

The best barometer that the accompanying hysteria has also passed is that the capital's enterprising beggars no longer sell stacks of surgical masks to motorists at every traffic light.

In all, more than 6,344 suspected plague cases were reported in India but, with modern medicines, the official death toll has stayed low. Nearly all of the 56 recorded deaths were from Surat, an industrial city in Gujarat, where an epidemic of pneumonic plague struck with ferocity, causing nearly 700,000 people to flee. Other badly hit states were Maharashtra, Rajasthan, West Bengal, and Karnataka.

The scare spread rapidly to other countries, and India found itself quarantined. Droves of tourists stopped planned Indian holidays, with one Delhi luxury hotel, the Taj Mahal, reporting more than 3,000 cancellations. A ban is still in force on Indian flights to Russia and most Gulf states. It is estimated that more than dollars 400m ( pounds 253m) were lost in exports when other countries stopped buying Indian products.

The epidemic was also a blow to the country's self-image as it tried to shake off the picture of a benighted country crushed by poverty, and emerge as an Asian dynamo.

Politically, there have been no casualties. The Prime Minister, Narasimha Rao, has yet to sack any of his cabinet, even though state and central authorities could have sealed off Surat, halting the plague before fleeing refugees carried it across the country.

In ward 7 of the Infectuous Diseases hospital, all the beds were empty, save for one patient, Bupinder Sorasi. From a village on Delhi's outskirts, Mr Sorasi, 35, does not know how he caught the plague, even though doctors claim nearly all Delhi's patients were infected by Surat refugees. 'I'm a poor farmer. I didn't know anyone from Surat,' he said through a grimy mask.

Mr Sorasi worries about his homecoming. Many returning patients have received a hostile reception from families and neighbours. 'I hope I can convince them I'm cured.'