E-Pao! Travel Log - How Red Cross saved one Mao village

How Red Cross saved one Mao village

By: Dr Irom Ibopishak Singh *

My story goes back to late April 1969. I was then posted at Tadubi Primary Health Centre as Medical Officer. An outbreak of a mysterious disease at Satim Pukhri Village in Mao west was reported directly to the Director of Medical Health and Family Welfare Services, Manipur.

A medical team was sent from the State Headquarter to the affected village. The disease manifested as fever (moderate to severe), rash all over the body concentrated more on the face, the upper part of the body and upper limbs.

Cough, redness and watering of the eyes etc. was more pronounced among younger patients. Malaise, headache and bodyache were the accompanying symptoms. A few cases of diarrhoea were also reported.

The disease did not spare the old persons also. The visiting team was not quite certain of the exact cause of the disease. They, nevertheless, gave palliative treatment to the sick persons.

The patients experienced immense relief after the treatment. Satin Pukhri was a sleepy village nestled on the northeastern slope of the lofty height of the western Mao mountain range. There were approximately 33 houses with around 200 persons.

Dr. Chandramohan, the then Director, was an efficient health administrator. He requested Dr. P. Kumud Singh, Senior Physician cum Superintendent of State Hospital, Lamphel, Imphal to visit the village in order to know the exact cause of the outbreak.

Dr. PK sent a telegraphic message to me to rush down to Imphal to accompany him in the mission. The rationale of calling me was that the area happened to fall under my jurisdiction and, I was, as such, accountable for the follow-up action of management and reporting.

Dr. PK Singh is a highly qualified (MD, MRCP, London) eminent physician. His in-depth knowledge on every aspect of medicine is astounding. I had the opportunity of working under him for a short stint in early 1968.

Next day, we started the journey quite early. From Senapati to Satim village, there was only one fair-weathered road. Trekking the picturesque mountain regions of Manipur in April-May would invariably enthral the visitor.

Rivulets criss crossing down the Green slope of the Mountain

The entire mountain regions remain clothed with greeneries interspersed with riots of colours from different indigenous flowers. Chingthrao trees dressed with only white flowers dance merrily with gay abandon with the mountain breeze.

It resembles, more or less, the Japanese cherry blossom in May. The flowers are not pure white. It is rather pale pinkish white. Cool, crisp and clean mountain air caress the body and stir the mind.

Tall, majestic rhododendron tress with flaming red flower clusters amidst deep green leaves pervade an intoxicating ambience. This tree (rhododendron arboretum smt) grows at the higher reaches (1400 to 3000 m above sea level) of Ukhrul and Senapati districts.

This beautiful flower is used to adorn the head gear of the brides of the Mao Nagas. Exotic orchids of variant varieties and hues – yellow, blue, red, violet, and white – sway complacently in the air. They bloom, then perish unseen, unsung in the jungle grave.

Anywhere you go, it is a breath-taking scenery. Dzuko valley in deep Mao mountain region is verily a slice of paradise patched there by the Creator. When the Dzuko lilies bloom profusely as far as the eye could see, it is a heavenly sight. Siroy mountain in Ukhrul district home to world famous lily is another piece of paradise.

The Famed Dzuko Lily in bloom.

After a thrilling journey we reached the village around 12 O’clock. The Naga villages typically consist of clusters of houses perched on the top of the mountain. The villagers have to go down the steep mountain far below to fetch water. We surveyed the houses and examined serious cases and treated all the sick persons.

Dr. PK Singh explained to me that it was an atypical and fulminating form of measles. Measles typically infects children from 2 to 10 years. He further explained that the villagers remained in isolation for years.

As such, the measle virus had not yet reached the village so far. The herd immunity of the people to the measle virus was nil. True enough, further investigation revealed that one woman from the village visited a relative in Dimapur in March.

She got infected there and brought the disease, infected the entire populace and the disease spread fast like a wild fire. Next day, we went with more staffs, medicines, gave treatment and health education to all the villagers.

On the third day of our visit, I was shocked and dumb founded to see all the human dwellings made of crude plank and thatched roof reduced to ash. The open sky was the only roof for them. The sick villagers rushed to me wailing, and implored to save their lives.

The exact cause of the fire was not immediately known. I was moved deeply to see the grief-stricken faces of the adults and more so, the famished-look of the innocent children. There was no village nearby to extend help.

I was the only human being on whom their survival depended at that critical juncture. For them, I was the only link, so to say, with the outside world. They appealed to me fervently to do something very very fast to procure food and clothing.

I promised them that I would do my level best to provide succour to them. I came down swiftly and met the Director in the same afternoon. The urgency and gravity of the situation was duly explained.

I emphasized the point that food was their most urgent need. The Director explained, through phone, the situation to His Excellency Shri Baleshore Prasadji, Lt. Governor of Manipur. The Lt. Governor informed the Director to send me next day at 11 am to Raj Niwas.

The following day, late Dr. Phanjoubam Chandrahas Singh, State public Health Officer and myself went to Raj Niwas. His Excellency forthwith handed over a sum of Rs. 5,000/- (Rupees five thousand) for the immediate relief measures.

It was a hefty amount in those days. Things moved very swiftly yet smoothly in those good old days. We immediately went to the main market and purchased all the necessary provisions for the entire amount.

Dr. Chandrahas, then, doled out Rs. 100/- (Rupees one hundred) for the purchase of eatables for the visiting team separately. His noble gesture prompted me to contribute Rs. 50/- (Rupees fifty. My monthly salary (pay) at that time was only Rs. 650/- (Rupees Six hundred and fifty).

He then took me to the Red Cross godown adjacent to his room. He was the treasurer (Secretary?) of the Indian Red Cross Society, Manipur branch. Lo! the display of valuable items kept immaculately in that Alladin’s treasure house.

Large tins of milk powder from Holland, good-looking biscuits tins (fortified and enriched) from Canada, blankets and warm clothings including skirts, track suits for all sundry sizes filled the room. We also collected more blankets, bed-sheets, pillows etc. from the State Medical Store.

We packed medicines, provisions, clothings in four jeeps. Dr. Ph. Chandrahas Singh was a gem of a person – clean, honest and compassionate.

The following day, we proceeded for Satim Pukhri at the crack of dawn and could reach there at 10:30 am. The biscuits were promptly distributed to the starved villagers. The food items like rice, potatoes, dal, sugar, cooking oil (purchased in bulk quantity) and vegetables etc. were handed over to the village authority.

Clothings like blankets, pillows, bed-sheets and other sundry items were distributed to each family under our supervision. By the grace of the Almighty, nobody died of hunger and disease. The old inspection bungalow at Senapati was our base camp, and from there we went to the village everyday.

When the epidemic was fully contained, the rehabilitation programmes were taken up by the Development Department. The villagers were fed, nursed and provided basic amenities for the initial critical days by the Red Cross under the aegis of the Medical Department. The memory of Satim village would remain forever in my mind.

In 2002, I was selected (after my retirement) as facilitator for the 10 days training programme on DOT’s for senior TB programme officers of North-Eastern States at Kolkata Medical College. As a follow-up training programme, I was to go to Kohima to impart training to senior TB programme officers of Nagaland.

As I travelled by bus, I glanced anxiously towards Satim Pukhri. Yes, I saw my beloved village after a long 33 years, transformed a lot with gleaming aluminium sheets roof tops , beckoning me fondly.

Tears of joy swelled up instantly in my eyes.

* Dr Irom Ibopishak Singh (Retd. State TB Officer, Manipur) wrote this article for The Sangai Express. This article was webcasted on 05th December 2007.

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