A mysterious disease has killed at least one person and hospitalized hundreds in India, with officials finding traces of lead and nickel in their blood

india unknown illness
Patients and bystanders are seen at the district government hospital in Eluru, India, on December 6, 2020.

  • A mysterious illness in Eluru, India, which was first reported on Sunday, has led to at least one death and the sickening of more than 500 people.
  • Many of the people who were found sick had suddenly passed out and started convulsing. 
  • A preliminary analysis of the blood samples of ten patients found traces of lead and nickel, suggesting possible heavy metal poisoning. But the sample size is too small to make any direct connection yet.
  • Some health officials have also said that the pattern of people getting sick doesn’t reflect how heavy metal poisoning usually happens.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Officials are slightly closer to solving the mystery of an unidentified illness that suddenly sickened more than 500 people, and killed one man, in southeastern India over the weekend.

The outbreak started on Saturday, when residents Eluru started passing out and convulsing, and experiencing other symptoms like nausea and anxiety, according to the Associated Press. One person even died – a 45-year-old man who was admitted to the hospital for epilepsy-like symptoms, according to USA Today

None of the 555 people treated for the mysterious illness tested positive for COVID-19, likely ruling out a possible correlation to that outbreak, according to Deutsche Welle.

More than 300 of the patients were also children, Deutsche Welle reported. 

A possible cause

On Tuesday, health officials appeared closer to finding the cause of the illness, with a preliminary analysis suggesting that it was heavy metal poisoning.

Researchers at India’s All-India Institute of Medical Sciences conducted a preliminary analysis using the blood samples of 10 patients, and found traces of lead and nickel particles, Reuters reported.

However, the sample size is too small to be sure heavy metal poisoning is the cause, according to Deutsche Welle.

india illness 1
A young patient is carried by a man at the district government hospital in Eluru on December 7, 2020.

It’s so far unclear how Eluru citizens may have been exposed to heavy metals. A government inquiry has been launched into the source of the heavy metals, according to The Telegraph.

A state health commissioner told The Telegraph that initial tests of the local water and food supply came up negative for the chemicals found in the patients, but the Times of India reported on Wednesday that a leading private lab had found high levels of pesticides in the drinking water. 

The lab said that the insecticide dichlorodiphenyldichlorethane (DDD) was found at levels of 14.21 and 15.23 per mg/I, far above the acceptable limit of 0.0001. Alachlor, a herbicide, was recorded at levels of 17.64, compared the to acceptable level of 0.001, according to the Times of India. 

G.V.L. Narasimha Rao, an Indian politician from the area, tweeted on Sunday that he had spoken with health experts who believe the “most likely cause”  of the mass illness “is poisonous organochlorine substances.”

DDD is an organochlorine insecticide.

india illness 2
A patient is assisted from an ambulance at the district government hospital in Eluru on December 8, 2020.

Organochlorine substances are used in pesticides and insecticides, but have been banned or restricted in many countries because of a link to cancer, Reuters reported. However, the use of the chemical is unregulated in India, where it has been blamed for deaths in the past, according to The Telegraph.

Exposure to organochlorines can lead to convulsions, headache, nausea, vomiting, tremors, confusion, muscle weakness, slurred speech, salivation, and sweating, according to Deutsche Welle. 

Residents in Eluru have been blaming the illness on organochlorine pesticides used in a recent anti-mosquito campaign, according to The Telegraph.

Unanswered questions

However, there’s still an added layer of mystery in that the pattern of people getting sick doesn’t reflect how heavy metal poisoning usually happens.

“If it was water or air-borne, people in a particular area would be affected. However, almost the entire [city of] Eluru is affected in this case. In most cases, only one member of the family was affected, which is also puzzling,” a scientist with the National Institute of Nutrition in Hyderabad told the Indian Express

Most of the patients have since been discharged from the hospital, and Geeta Prasadini, the public-health director of the Andhra Pradesh state, told Reuters on Tuesday that there had not been a new case in the last 24 hours. 

It’s unclear what – if any – longterm issues patients will have.

Dr. AVR Mohan, the Medical Superintendent for the district hospital in Eluru, told The Telegraph that many of the discharged continue to suffer from amnesia.

Read the original article on Business Insider