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Heat wave death toll rises to 70, Health Ministry denies meningitis outbreak

In a statement on Wednesday, the Health Ministry announced that 70 people had died over the past few days due to the country’s current heat wave, with 158 others suffering from heat exhaustion.

Fever hospitals around the country declared a state of emergency, in light of the influx of patients coming in these past few days.

The ministry said that 21 people died on Monday alone, 10 of which were in Cairo. The Health Ministry spokesperson said that those most likely to be affected are senior citizens, children and those with chronic diseases, MENA reported.

The numbers have quickly jumped from two days ago, with suggestions of a higher death toll by unofficial medical sources, spurring additional concerns about the spread of infectious diseases.

A medical source inside the Health Insurance Hospital in Nasr City, east Cairo, said that the hospital has seen around 40 causalities in the emergency room since last Thursday, along with a few other casualties that were admitted to the hospital.

The source added that the patients had several symptoms in common, including a high fever that reached 41 and 42 degrees in some cases, as well as disorientation.  

In one day, the hospital received eight cases, two of whom died. Some of the patients died hours after they were admitted to the hospital, the source added. 

The doctor had expressed concerns about the high death toll, explaining that it can be potentially attributed to delayed emergency response or lack of patients’ response to treatment. As a precautionary measure, the hospital has started isolating patients suffering from sun strokes from the rest of the patients, for fear of a possible undiagnosed bacterial infection. Doctors at the hospital have also been prescribed precautionary medicines. 

Mohamed Khalil, coordinator of the Committee to Protect the Right to Health, told Mada Masr that the discrepancy between the death toll announced by the ministry and that announced by hospitals raises a lot of questions.

He said that the ministry is notorious for its lack of transparency and for announcing less than realistic numbers.

“The number of deaths announced by one hospital can amount to more than the overall number announced by the ministry, which raises concerns about these numbers being used sugarcoat the crisis,” he said.

Khalil also pointed to the high death toll, explaining that while severe weather conditions may be the cause, there is also a possibility of an epidemic, which may require necessary precautions.

He highlighted the need for transparency on the ministry’s part, saying the accurate symptoms and diagnosis should be announced, along with an accurate death toll.

In another statement late Wednesday, the ministry denied that the causalities are caused by meningitis or any “mystery virus” or epidemic, explaining that the rate of deaths among those susceptible to heat exhaustion at this temperature is a “scientific fact.”

The statement added that the number of meningitis patients recorded since January 2015 doesn’t exceed five patients, and generally varies between 25–30 patients a year.

Dr Amany Sadek reiterated the ministry’s statements, telling Mada Masr that is extremely unlikely that it is meningitis.

Sadek explained that meningitis spreads in closed areas. “It can affect a school, and then starts spreading wider to a whole village and so on, but not a whole country,” she said.

She explained that analysis of the data from all hospitals treating incoming patients is required to identify the root cause of the deaths. She said the different cases in different hospitals are not necessarily indicative of the underlying cause.

Sadek said it is the role of the ministry to collect such data and analyze it, but that it usually takes a few days to do so.  

However, she doesn’t rule out heatstroke as the cause of the deaths, but points out that there is protocol for dealing with these types of cases. She highlights the current mismanagement of patients and the lack of proper training on the part of medical staff.

“There are special beds for patients suffering a heatstroke, where they have access to large fans and are sprayed with water,” she explained. “There are several measures to decrease the patients’ temperature immediately.”

According to a doctor at a public hospital who preferred to remain anonymous, doctors are not fully equipped to deal with these kinds of cases, and are not fully aware of what they are dealing with.

“Doctors asses the case overall, and the patient can die before the doctor can do anything to save him,” he said. “Other doctors don’t even know what they are dealing with.”

“If we know what was going on, we would gladly tell people,” he said.

Meanwhile, Waheed Seoudy, head of the Meteorological Authority said that the heatwave is expected to continue till next week, at the end of which temperatures are expected to start dropping. According to the privately owned Al-Masry Al-Youm, which quoted him, the heat wave is attributed to the seasonal Indian depression, a heat wave traveling from India through Saudi Arabia and on to Egypt and surrounding countries.

In an article published in Jadaliyya last month, Mika Minio-Paluello linked the rising temperatures to climate change.

He explained that climate change is manifested in the early arrival of summer, citing the heatwave that struck Egypt in May.

“How many more will die in Egypt this summer, where it is far hotter and the health system weaker? The statistics do not exist and we do not know the names of those who died, as many live on the streets and come from Egypt’s underclass,” he wrote.

Mostafa Mohie