February 23, 2019 – Assam, India
Hospitals throughout Assam are reporting that over 100 people have died from poison hooch in the northeastern India state of Assam. Meanwhile local media and government officials are stating that over 300 have been either hospitalized or are being treated for the effects of this poisoned alcohol. These reports are coming on the heels of 100 people who died from ingesting methanol laced tainted alcohol in the states of Utter Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
The majority of afflicted are tea garden workers which is the primary employment in and around the Jorhat district where reports of the deaths first surfaced on Thursday night. After the first wave of victims were reported as presenting to the Jorhat hospital, a second wave was reported by the Swahid Kushal Konwar Civil Hospital in Golaghat, where it now appears the count will rise dramatically.
As reported by Reuters, the Assam Health Minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said that doctors and medical college students from nearby districts have been rushed to the Jorhat hospital and Swahid Kushal Konwar Civil Hospital to treat the victims.
The liquor in question is commonly referred to as “hooch” or “country made liquor” by the locals. It is the only alcoholic beverages that most of the working poor can afford. This bootleg liquor is made in unsanitary conditions often spiked with adulterants to increase its potency. It is common practice for the makers of this illicit alcohol to “spike” it with methanol, rubbing alcohol and other industrial chemicals.
As happened a couple of weeks ago in Utter Pradesh and Uttarakhand victims are presenting at the hospitals with signs of methanol alcohol. The antidote for methanol poisoning is Antizol, generically called fomepizole manufactured by, and . It is not stocked at hospitals throughout India and around the world.
Opposition political leaders throughout the affected districts are calling for government payments to victims’ families. These payments will help the families that have lost wage earners to yet another bout of methanol poisoning deaths and disabilities. It will not help in treating the victims. The government health ministries need to authorize funds for hospitals to stock fomepizole, the antidote to methanol ingestion.
Sadly, there is not much that the hospitals can do for the over 300 victims now being treated with unproven methods at medical facilities throughout Assam. Most will die, methanol kills. Those that can overcome their poisoning will suffer from organ damages, nerve damage and or permanent blindness.
Assam’s excise minister Parimal Suklabaidya told Al Jazeera, “The death toll might increase from Jorhat and Golaghat districts. It’s a very unfortunate incident. We are taking utmost care to provide the best medical facilities,” The best medical facilities cannot help the victims without the proper antidote for methanol poisoning, fomepizole.
As regular deaths from methanol continue throughout the country, it is past time for India to address the bootleg alcohol problem with enforcement and education while equipping the medical community with the proper weapons to combat the effects of tainted alcohol.
After each of these incidents, including the current crisis in Assam, local police and government officials are keen to announce the arrests of the bootleggers. After the Utter Pradesh and Uttarakhand incident only a couple of weeks ago, a strike force was announced to ferret out the gangs that make tainted alcohol. The ink on the report by the strike force has not even been printed, and yet a deadlier tragedy is unfolding in Assam. The methanol poisoning in Assam will likely top the record of 200 people killed in Odisha state in 1992.
India suffers from prohibition by economics. Authentic alcoholic beverages are sought after by the working class, they are however unaffordable. Contributing to the unaffordability of legal alcohol are the high excise taxes. Just as bootleggers thwarted Prohibition by the United States in the last century, similar gangs will continue to operate in India at the expense of the health and lives of the people.
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