Spotlight: Pollution triggers health crisis in Indian capital

NEW DELHI, Nov. 13 -- Pollution has triggered a health crisis in the Indian capital. Nearly a week since severe haze engulfed Delhi and its adjoining areas, residents are increasingly making a beeline to hospitals seeking urgent medical attention.

Pollution levels are 30 times the World Health Organisation's recommended limit in some areas of the national capital. And Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal has already likened the city to a "gas chamber."

Doctors say they have seen an unprecedented increase in the number of patients, mostly children and elderly, visiting hospitals every day.

"I have been living and working in Delhi for the past 26 years and never before have I seen this kind of menace. I am attending to patients day and night whose respiratory passages are blocked, irritable or completely swollen due to the smog," said Dr Avinash Raman, a Delhi-based pulmonologist working with a private hospital.

"We have to immediately put those patients on ventilator relief who are unable to breathe while others are given nebulizers. It is so deadly that it is affecting the lungs and other vital organs of people, because when we inhale too much pollutants, then they interfere with our blood's ability to reach our vital organs," he added.

The worst affected are children and elderly. While children's lungs are not fully developed until a certain age to deal with this kind of pollution, the elderly's system is already weakened with age and therefore unable to deal with the poisonous air.

Following the outbreak, the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), the country's premier hospital, reported a 20 per cent spike in the number of young and elderly patients with respiratory problems while doctors announced a public health emergency in the city in a chorus and advised people to stay indoors.

"This should be treated as a threat to everyone's life. I have little children coming to me with red eyes and breathlessness. We had to treat children as young as 7-8 year-olds with steroids. It is worse for those who were already prone to respiratory flare-ups. I don't know when the government will act on the situation but this requires some major clean-up act in the capital," said another city-based chest specialist Dr Manek Gupta.

"Our children will have a stunted childhood and a damaged life while the elderly will suffer badly in this toxic air. It should be treated as a warning call, like a nuclear disaster," he added.

Dr Gupta's concerns are not surprising as some studies have assessed the link between air pollution and malfunctioning in newborns.

In one such study conducted at a prestigious Delhi hospital, between 2010 and 2017, doctors and researchers found that environmental factors like pollution and toxic air affected the health of newborn babies from causing premature births to adversely affecting the growth of the foetus.

In another alarming revelation, it was concluded that many premature babies died due to non-development of organs like lungs -- a direct impact of air pollution.

Meanwhile, the spike in the number of patients in the hospitals has sent doctors into a tizzy. Many government hospitals were not even prepared for the crisis while others reported a shortage of doctors to treat the growing number of patients.

"We reached the hospital early Thursday morning after my husband returned from his morning walk and started coughing incessantly. His eyes were red and watery. Doctors said he had a smoker's cough due to the smog despite the fact that he is a non-smoker. In fact, my husband is a runner and has participated in marathons. We are shocked and he is currently being treated with nebulizers," said Neelam Saha, a local resident.

While many contend that breathlessness and cough are temporary effects of smog, doctors argue that there can be lasting damages to a human body because of air pollution and it is also linked with the brain. Autoimmune diseases go up in such conditions where healthy cells in the body are attacked by immune system itself, causing diseases like arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis and psoriasis.

"I suffer from first-stage arthritis but the pain has grown worse in the last two years. Earlier, I used to feel pain with the onset of winters and it was mainly due to weather conditions. But now my doctor said that pollution intensifies arthritis and increases chances of hypertension, diabetes and stroke," said Shishpal Singh, another local resident.

This medical emergency, a silent killer in its own way, is forcing people to look for greener options.

"On the day the smog engulfed the national capital, my nine-year-old son returned from school with breathlessness. We thought he might have over-played in the school and would be alright with some rest. By late evening, he was gasping for breath and an hour later, fainted. We had to rush him to hospital," said Anushka Roy, a housewife.

She added: "I never imagined the situation could be so bad. I don't want to give this kind of childhood to my son and we have decided to relocate to my native city of Mysore in southern Indian state of Karnataka in coming weeks. It will be a challenge definitely, but I am not going to kill my family by staying on in this city."

Experts say the air pollution crisis that hits Delhi now regularly every winter is a deadly cocktail mix of weather conditions and uncontrolled effluents being discharged into the atmosphere.

It is made worse with the burning of crop stubble by farmers in neighbouring states of Punjab and Haryana whose remnants hang in the air due to zero wind speed.

"The government has lost time for the first generation action that was needed to tackle the smog and clean up the air. While a consistent action to deal with air pollution is yet to be taken, the health crisis will further make matters worse for the government," said R.K. Raman, an environmentalist.

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