Uttar Pradesh, India – February 11, 2019
Utter Pradesh is most known for being home to the iconic Taj Mahal. Uttarakhand is the home to Hindu pilgrimage sites as well as a center for yoga study that was made famous by The Beatles 1968 visit. Today these two north India States, Utter Pradesh and Uttarakhand, are now infamous as the center of a breakout of toxic alcohol deaths.
Towns straddling the border of the two states are reporting many sick, hospitalized and over 100 deaths from toxic alcohol since the weekend. The official death toll is sure to rise as methanol alcohol poisoning cannot be reversed unless treated immediately. Non-fatal cases of methanol alcohol poisoning can lead to organ failure, nerve damage and blindness.
Residents have taken to the streets to demand government action with many claiming that local officials and police are complicit in the sale of bootleg alcohol throughout the region. Local election season is in full swing which has led to circular finger pointing among officials. Conflicting reports are being released claiming arrests ranging from 300 to 3000 bootleggers throughout the area.
State and National forces have been charged with forming a strike force to investigate, arrest and seize the bootleggers within these States. Residents cite a culture of bribery and corruption by powerful local officials and police forces that allow the mass production and sale of illegal alcohol to the poorest who live in the towns on the borders of Utter Pradesh and Uttarakhand.
Unable to afford the high cost of legal alcohol, residents easily find an alternative in bootleg alcohol. Seeking higher, quicker profits, the bootleggers skip the distillation process often mixing methanol alcohol with flavorings to simulate the taste of authentic alcoholic beverages. Consistency, proofing standards and safety are not the concern of the bootleggers, profit is their only motive.
The victims of this recent tragedy are exhibiting the signs of methanol poisoning. Over the years everything from diesel fuel to pesticides has been found in the . India hospitals, as is the case in other countries, are ill equipped to handle a mass outbreak of methanol poisonings. The treatment protocol for methanol poisoning calls for the administration of Fomepizole. Most hospitals do not stock this life saving antidote.
The situation is fluid in Utter Pradesh and Uttarakhand, statements being made by local officials, local police and hearsay have meshed together in this still developing story. What is known is that over 100 have or will die from bootleg alcohol. It is not an uncommon story in India, it is the numbers that are uncommon.
The alcohol trade by gangs of bootleggers is a profitable business. Their money enables them to enlist the aid of many officials through bribery. There are claims that a major bootlegging operation has been dismantled in the forests of Uttarakhand. Statements have been issued stating the number of policemen and government officials that have been arrested, however, it is not clear if these statements are electioneering or facts. Until the Strike Force completes its investigation and issues a report the truth will not be clear. What is clear is that a lot of people are dead from toxic alcohol. These are deaths that can be prevented through educational awareness campaigns.
Tourists visiting India should be aware that it is not only rural homemade unbranded alcoholic drinks that contain deadly methanol, name brand and served in bars and hotels. According to the International Spirits and Wine Association of India, of the estimated 5 billion liters of alcohol consumed every year in India, around 40 percent is produced illegally. The government of India data claims that an average of 1000 people a year die from toxic alcohol, with a record number of over 1500 in 2017.
The governments of India now find themselves in a position of forming a task force to deal with the aftermath of a mass death tragedy. When the dust settles, the lesson should not be forgotten. A task force to educate and foster awareness among the public should be put in place to avoid this from happening in the future. Enforcement is essential, so is education and awareness. It is also imperative for the health system of India to put in place a protocol to recognize and treat the symptoms of methanol poisoning.
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