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Indian villages in midst of TB epidemic

| Friday, Feb. 7, 2014, 8:03 p.m.

LOHATA, India — A cluster of poor villages, long known for its colorful silk saris, now is known for something else — tuberculosis.

Nearly half of Lohata's population has the disease — as many as 100,000 — and the community's weaving tradition is part of the reason that it is on the front line of a major health crisis in India.

The area of Uttar Pradesh state is under unofficial quarantine because of the epidemic. Strangers rarely venture into these villages outside the ancient city of Varanasi. Even rickshaw drivers refuse to enter, turning away the few passengers looking for a lift.

The high rate of TB cases in Lohata is unusual, even for India, where the disease kills about 300,000 people every year. Poverty and malnutrition are factors, but the fact that so many people in Lohata are weavers also is significant, said Dr. J.N. Banavalikar, vice chairman of the government agency TB Association of India.

Thousands of sari weavers work all day in cramped rooms, breathing in minute threads that weaken their lungs and make them more susceptible.

“They work in poorly ventilated rooms for hours, and that spreads germs very fast,” Banavalikar said.

India has made important strides in health, most recently with a successful polio-vaccination campaign. But tuberculosis has remained a stubborn problem in India, which has more than a quarter of the world's new TB cases.

Children are at risk.

Mumtaz Ali said he has no way to help his 4-year-old grandson, Anwar, who coughs throughout the day, spitting blood with spasms.

“Doctors say he is malnourished,” Ali said. “They say we should give Anwar nutritious food. But the fact is, I cannot even afford two meals a day — forget about giving him milk and eggs. Only Allah can save us.”

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