Covid-19 link suspected in Hindu pilgrimage's high number of deaths

The pilgrimage, which began last month, involves a tour of four holy Hindu sites in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand at altitudes higher than 10,000 ft. PHOTO: RONAN O'CONNELL

KOLKATA - A high number of fatalities reported from an ongoing Hindu pilgrimage in the Himalayas has raised concerns, with some medical experts identifying past exposure to Covid-19, which can cause lasting harm to the lungs, as a contributing factor to these deaths.

The authorities reported 119 deaths last month from the Char Dham Yatra, compared with 29 recorded during the same month in 2019. This figure is significantly higher even after factoring in the jump in the number of pilgrims for the same period - from 994,000 to nearly 1.35 million.

The pilgrimage, which began last month, involves a tour of four holy Hindu sites in the upper reaches of the Himalayas in Uttarakhand at altitudes higher than 10,000 ft. At such elevations, those with past Covid-19 infections risk facing breathing problems and can suffer from a lack of oxygen.

"Covid-19 was all related with your lungs, your respiratory system… This could be an underlying factor," said Dr Saroj Naithani, director of Medical, Health and Family Welfare Services for Uttarakhand.

The pilgrimage has resumed fully this year after two years of pandemic restrictions, with more than 1.7 million undertaking the journey so far.

As at Tuesday (June 7), the number of deaths from various causes had touched 162, including 31 from road traffic crashes. Key causes included cardiac problems and hypothermia.

Dr Naithani said multiple factors had led to these deaths, such as a rush to complete the pilgrimage, giving the body little time to adjust to differences in temperature and elevation, and exposure to cold water during the common Hindu religious practice of bathing in rivers.

"In spite of all advisories, people tend to do this," she said, adding that such behaviour can prove fatal for those with reduced immunity.

Around 80 per cent of the dead were above the age of 60, with more than half suffering from chronic illnesses such as diabetes and hypertension.

This year's death toll has already surpassed the total recorded in 2019 for the entire pilgrimage season, which usually lasts from May to October. According to a Press Trust of India report, around 90 pilgrims died in 2019, when the total footfall was a little over 3.4 million.

There have also been accusations of inadequate arrangements this time, given the rush of pilgrims.

While the authorities were able to ascertain a history of Covid-19 in only seven of the dead, it is suspected that more had had the infection given poor reporting and testing. As many as 68 per cent of Indians above the age of six had Covid-19 antibodies, according to a national sero-survey last year.

In a report submitted last week, an expert panel constituted by the Uttarakhand government recommended mandatory acclimatisation for at least 24 to 48 hours for pilgrims and gradual ascent, among other measures.

"Acclimatisation is very, very important. Do not allow the pilgrims to reach these high altitudes in a single day," said Dr Hem Chandra, the panel's head and vice-chancellor of Hemwati Nandan Bahuguna Uttarakhand Medical Education University in Dehradun.

Dr Naithani added that the government is also advising pilgrims, especially those above age 60, not to stay overnight in higher reaches.

Since last week, the Uttarakhand government has made it mandatory for pilgrims above age 50 to undergo a health screening, with those found medically unfit being advised to return.

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