The Irrawaddy

Death Toll Rises As Unidentified Illness Sweeps Naga Region

Naga children are pictured in 2014, in a village along the road connecting Lahe and Nanyun townships in the Naga Self-Administered Zone. (Photo: Nang Seng Nom / The Irrawaddy)

An estimated 38 people—mostly children—have died from an as-yet unidentified and contagious illness in two townships within the Naga Self-Administered Zone in Burma’s far north.

Local authorities sent two doctors on Friday to the village of Thankholama in Lahe Township, the first location where the disease struck. Victims have presented with a cough, and then develop dark spots and lumps on their bodies. In the final stages of the illness, they vomit blood, explained Thein Zaw, the assistant director of the Naga Self-Administered Zone.

“We can say that for the meantime, we are able to somewhat control the situation regarding this disease. The death toll has reached 38,” he said; of the 38 casualties, 34 were reportedly children under 15 years old, and four were elderly people.

It remains unknown what illness is afflicting the people of both Lahe and Nanyun townships.  Loyon, a lawmaker from Lahe Township, told The Irrawaddy that locals first suspected that the children were suffering from a more common condition, but as the death toll rose, people were alarmed by how little resistance or immunity patients appeared to exhibit toward the disease.

Blood and urine samples from the patients are currently being transported to Rangoon for testing.

“We may come to know the type of disease after 10 or 15 days,” Thein Zaw said, referring to the timeframe for testing.

The authorities from the Naga Self-Administered Zone have no plan to declare a state of emergency, he said, but will send more medics to administer treatment.

Meanwhile, in Lahe Township, Thein Zaw said that between 20 and 30 patients remain sick, with reportedly even more individuals affected in Nanyun Township, though official numbers for that region were not yet known.

Naung Hang, a resident of Lahe town and a member of the Council of Naga Affairs, estimated that most of the Thankholama’s 50 households had now been affected by the outbreak.

“It was hard to get access this village. This was why the medics could not get there on time to stop the outbreak,” said Naung Hang; Thankholama is nearly 40 miles from Lahe town.

Athong Makury, President of the Council of Naga Affairs, wrote short note on his Facebook page on Thursday about how the disease was first spotted, and then spread.

He said that the first case appeared in Thankholama on June 14. Within one month, five children had reportedly succumbed to the illness. Only then did the village authorities inform the medical department in Lahe Town, which also serves as the headquarters for the Naga Self-Administered Zone. Yet although medics tried to spread awareness about general disease prevention, locals say that no serious action was taken to contain the outbreak.

Thankholama is particularly remote and isolated—accessible only by motorbike—in a region already severely lacking infrastructure; the Naga Self-Administered Zone, populated by the Naga ethnic group, is considered one of the poorest and most under-developed areas in Burma.