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Indian health officials find first clues after hundreds hospitalized with mystery illness

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The initial investigation into the mystery illness in southern India that has put hundreds of people in the hospital has found traces of lead and nickel in the blood samples of some patients. The number of people treated in hospitals in Eluru city rose from 315 on Sunday night to 550 on Tuesday as medical experts struggled to find the cause of the illness that gave patients symptoms like nausea, seizures and vomiting. 

Most patients have been released and fewer than 100 are still hospitalized. A 45-year-old man fighting nausea and seizures died on Sunday night. 

Health authorities in Eluru had sent blood samples of some of the patients to All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) in New Delhi, India's top hospital and research center, for analysis. A preliminary report of the hospital found traces of lead and nickel in at least 10 blood samples, government authorities said. 

India Mystery Illness
A patient is assisted by others to get down from an ambulance at the district government hospital in Eluru, Andhra Pradesh state, India, Tuesday, Dec.8, 2020.  / AP

"The sample size that we sent on an urgent basis to AIIMS was small… we have sent more samples and their reports are awaited," Superintendent of Eluru Government Hospital Dr. A V Mohan was quoted as saying by The Indian Express newspaper. 

"Full details as to what triggered the mysterious disease will be known only after the central agencies submit their reports," Andhra Pradesh state's Health Minister A K K Srinivas told Indian news agency, Press Trust of India. 

Teams of doctors and experts from AIIMS, the National Institute of Nutrition, the Indian Institute of Chemical Technology, and the Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology are all carrying out detailed medical investigations. 

The chief minister of the state, Y S Jagan Mohan Reddy, has asked his health officials to look into how lead and nickel traces could have entered into the bodies of the patients. He has also asked for "all possible tests" on drinking water and milk supplies.

"More tests are being conducted by Indian Institute of Chemical Technology and other institutes and the results are expected soon," the Chief Minister's Office said Tuesday.

The health officials are also investigating if organochlorines, used in pesticides and mosquito killing agents and linked to cancer, could have gotten into the food chain and infected people. 

The government authorities are also conducting surveys in Eluru and neighboring districts, screening people for symptoms and sanitizing public places. 

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