As millions gather for Kumbh Mela, doctors are watching

55 days, 100 million visitors, and a high risk of disease spreading among the masses

by Hannah Hoag

Daniel Berehulak/Getty

When a cholera outbreak gripped a London neighbourhood in 1854, physician John Snow carefully mapped its deaths. The thin bars he traced under each address clustered around a water pump on Broad Street, which turned out to be the source of the bacteria. Snow’s studies of disease patterns won him recognition as the father of modern epidemiology—and crushed the prevailing theory that cholera was spread by bad air.

Faced with the same challenge today, Snow might use a tablet computer. In mid-January, as the Indian city of Allahabad began ushering in millions of Hindu pilgrims for the religious festival Kumbh Mela, emergency physician and epidemiologist Gregg Greenough settled into a temporary field hospital with his tablet computer. He and his team from the Harvard School of Public Health were on the lookout for signs of influenza, tuberculosis, cholera and other diarrheal diseases. The plan is to record the temporary residence of each pilgrim admitted to hospital and plot it on a digital map that geolocates the festival’s toilets and drinking water. “We’re helping them digitize the data and analyze it in real time,” says Greenough. “It should help keep the pulse of the community and see if anything is emerging so they can act on it quickly.”

Held in Allahabad every 12 years, the Kumbh Mela is the world’s largest religious gathering. Thousands of tents pop up near the spot where the Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers converge, and throngs of faithful bathe in the waters to wash away their sins. Officials predict that as many as 100 million visitors will flock to the 55-day-long festival, with 30 million alone on Feb. 10, the most auspicious bathing day. The risk of disease spreading among such dense crowds is high, and not without precedent.

At religious gatherings in 2000 and 2001, the meningitis-causing bacteria Neisseria meningitidis W135 spread among pilgrims attending the hajj in Saudi Arabia. Soon after, the microbe made its way into Europe, Asia and the United States.

Even if Greenough’s mapping does identify an outbreak, it’s unlikely to spread outside India’s borders, says Kamran Khan, an infectious disease doctor and scientist at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Unlike the hajj or the Olympics, the Kumbh Mela is primarily a domestic event. While flights into Saudi Arabia spike to five times normal during the hajj, “with the Kumbh Mela, it’s marginal,” says Khan, “probably five to 10 per cent at some airports.”

To help stem disease outbreaks that do cross borders, such as the 2003 SARS outbreak in Toronto, Khan developed Bio.Diaspora, an online tool that shows how international travellers can spread infectious diseases. Khan is also working with another group of scientists—along with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)—to develop a tool called BioMosaic that maps census data, migration patterns and health status to identify countries where international travel may give rise to emerging disease. After the 2010 cholera outbreak in Haiti, detection, response and disease education were targeted at specific Haitian-American communities in the U.S. “We don’t have a crystal ball,” says Marty Cetron, director of global migration and quarantine at the CDC. “The point is to get lots of better data and to move from the reactive to the preventative.”


An Indian Hindu holy man, or Naga Sadhu, prays while taking a dip at Sangam, the confluence of the rivers Ganges, Yamuna and mythical Saraswati, during the royal bath on Makar Sankranti at the start of the Maha Kumbh Mela. (Kevin Frayer/AP)

Indian Hindu holy men are silhouetted as they celebrate in the water at Sangam.(Kevin Frayer/AP)

An Indian Hindu holy man performs morning prayers for devotees. (Kevin Frayer/AP)

Hindu devotees take a holy dip in the waters of the Ganges. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)

Hindu holy men take a dip during the first “Shahi Snan” (grand bath) at the ongoing “Kumbh Mela”. (Rahmad Masood/Reuters)

Hindu devotees cross pontoon bridges spanning the Ganges during the first “Shahi Snan”. (Ahmad Masood/Reuters)




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As millions gather for Kumbh Mela, doctors are watching

  1. Religion is ridiculous….and dangerous in more ways than one.

    • shut up

      • Because it enshrines ignorance like this….and ss3

        • hey emily you know nothing about indian spiritualism,just keep quiet.this got nothing to do with religion,its about spiritualism.spirits do exist and this is celebration of that eternal spirit.its not religious festival where only particular group of people allowed to participate.kumbha mela is not festival its a spiritual ceremony,whats harm in participating in such a event.here they dont spread any teaching or doctrine,just bathing in the river and go back home,so what ignorance is there?they dont ask you to kill people or fight for your religion,anybody can take part disregard of their race and religion,of course large gathering like this has a potential to spread disease especially water borne disease but thats normal in any big gatherings.

          • If you think getting sick by dunking yourself in filthy water is spiritual, you’re crazy.

            No, it’s not normal.

            India was once a great civilization….this kind of belief explains why it’s fallen so far.

          • who are u to say whats normal and not normal,what do u care.why all of sudden u are so concern about india?u just take care of your business,nobody appreciate your concern,indian people know how to take care of their health,thanks for your advise.

          • Well see, this is Canada….and here we have freedom of speech.

            And I say overpopulation, and underfeeding leads to bizarre practices like bathing in filthy water.

            Wanna talk about your rapists next?

          • are you educated in first place,if you are, you wouldnt be talking like this in first place.what rapist got to do with our subject of argument,few incidents like this doesnt represent the whole population.brutal raping is happening everywhere every now and then,it doesnt mean all the indian males are rapists.what happened in delhi was very rare and separate incidents,dont try to coin that with our subject of discussion.are you looking down at indians as a whole,than you are not human at all.

          • The incident was not rare. It”s the kind of thing that happens with backward people.

            People who have waterlogged brains from bathing in dirty water.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • Yes, I am Canadian. We gave up nuclear power, because we don’t believe in murdering millions of people

            Canadians have bidets, and don’t wash in rivers.

            You, however, need to wipe your mouth out with soap…..and maybe learn to read while you’re at it. This thread is about India and the Ganges not Pakistan.

          • you must be one of the less intelligent canadians i guess,you must be one blonde girl who knows to eat,clubbing,go to toilet and sleep.you dont have good general knowledge.so far in the history can you tell me how many millions of people died after bathing in the river ganga?or at least is there any outbreak which caused by water from GANGA,if this happened by now goverment of india would have banned the bathing in the river.but for centuries people bathing in the river something untowards or any major disease never happened,yeah of course this is bizarre practice…. and people like you with the bugs brain cant accept all this.you talk about backward and forward people,if you come from so advance society,have you nation ever sent any satelites into space using your local expertise?we have done that many times with our own technologies.so what backward you are talking about?using bidet..hahaha…to wash your hand maybe but not your aaaaaaa……..(dont delete my comment if really wanna continue this argument)

          • I don’t remove comments, the moderators do.

            I don’t know what your fascination is with toilets….but there is no reason to treat a river as one.

            India is full of diseases. Famous for it in fact.

            Canada was in space long before you were, and you got most of your tech from us.

            There is no argument here to continue….you are talking nonsense.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • naiker….if you want to go bathe in dirty water, you go right ahead.

            You are too ignorant to worry about.

          • emily i m sorry,if my words and language insulted you,actually i didnt mean to hurt anybody’s feelings.i just couldnt accept when you say every single of our practice is wrong,afterall this is only bathing in a filthy water is not a big sin.but westerners always ridicule asians particularly indians of their way of living.you know we are the country given you YOGA and AYURVEDA,if we are stupid how could our ancient ancestors discovered these spiritual science.i admit and accept bathing in a filthy water can cause disease,but you put it in a very sarcastic way,thats why i started to argue with you,anyway i m sorry if anything i said hurt your feelings.

          • No, I’m not insulted, and my feelings aren’t hurt.

            India produces brilliant mathematicians and has contributed greatly to the world….I just hate to see the damage that religion has done, especially to the children.

            There are bright children in Canada damaged by religion as well. It isn’t just India, it’s everywhere.

          • how religion has done damaged to the children,i dont understand can you elaborate on that….

          • There is no god….there are no gods. Religion is a fairy tale. It’s primitive superstition from the cave days.

            Teaching children religion is child abuse. Teach them science. Life should be based on fact and knowledge, not old stories.

          • yeah but your science got no answers for millions of questions in the world yet.even if you got flu there is no medicine to cure immediately than how the imperfect science gonna replace religions.science is still at infant stage,science dont even know how big universe is,science not map out trillions of neurons and synapses in our brain yet.what science has at the moment is a little bit medicines and technologies for diseases,some super computers to solve some small problems and early telecommunication technologies for communication,with this 1 percent advancement compare to the size of universe how you gonna promote science to replace religion.as long as the mystery of death is not answered science cannot replace religion.eventhough religion is a fantasy according to you,at least it gives you pseudo assurance of your safety and your beloved people after death.can your science proof there is no life after death,if it can with solid empirical evidence,than may be people will slowly let go their believe in god.but so far most of the scientific studies done or being done on life after death (like near death experience studies,studies on shaminism,yoga meditation research)leading to more questions than answers.we cant talk atheism here,we have to talk fact.SCIENCE IS ALSO IMPERFECT like any other religions,you have to keep that in your mind…..if science is perfect,has the answers for everything than religion will dissapear by itself.but here you see science cant save your life all the time,especially during natural disasters,science cant even predict earthquake….?so these weak humanbeings want some power to exist out there in the sky and become their saviour,this is pure psychology and motivation in humans live,whats wrong with that.religion does good to billions of people but it only does bad to small number of people.

          • Religion flies you into buildings.

            Science flies you to the moon.

          • your knowledge is very shallow,pls do a lot of reading.

          • You end as you began, by being stupid.

            Must be the result of bathing in filthy water.

          • an idiot like you,dont understand spiritualism because you are moron.you think its very fashionable to say that you are an atheist but you are a real stupid.i have a lot of sympathy for you.dont simply talk without a knowledge,you are a living proof that white girls are always stupid and dumb.you got no other input than filthy water to say something bad about indians,but you know something filthy water much better than your unwashed stinking buttock…hahahaha,you wanna start again go on…

          • Bathing in filthy water isn’t spiritualism….it’s stupidity.

            Same kind of stupidity that leads you into sexism and remarks about other subjects you don’t know anything about.

          • bathing in filthy water with a faith in god is not stupidity,you cant understand our spiritualism because you are extremely stupid as i said earlier.walking on fire,bathing in filthy water,poking skin with spike with the faith in god is not stupid,its a divine practice.lowly evolved being like yourself of course cant digest our practice because you know nothing about spiritualism.talking about sexism you westeners are worst than us.you people having sex with own mother,farther brother and sister,you people are worst than dogs.we dont do like that,even there is a raping case it always involves outsiders not family members.

          • why so quiet,you cant answer me,see when you yourself not knowledgeable dont criticize other people and their practice.science never say god doesnt exist,it just doesnt have the empirical evidence yet to accept existence of god.science never accept or deny the concept of god.world famous scientists like ALBERT EINSTEIN,THOMAS ALWA EDISON,mathematician RAMANUJA,STEPHEN HAWKINGS and many more did say a lot about parellel universe(spirit world).scientists like DR.RAYMOND MOODY(near death researcher),DR.IAN STEVENSON(reincarnation theory),DR,ELISABETH KUBLER ROSS(death bed vision) and DR.SAM PARNIA(global aware studies) for certain degree accept the idea of other dimensions.in 2012 there was something happened in LHC(LARGE HADRON COLLIDER) at CERN,for the first time scientists got biggest breakthrough when HIGGS BOSON theory proven to be true.this HIGGS BOSON already been spoken by ancient wise sages and monks in olden scriptures and finally it has been proven scientifically.this is what you call science,science is something growing.day by day it will come up with new theories and new answers.so pls do some reading before you talk.is not my style to be sarcastic,but sometimes i got a bit mad when you talk without a proper research.you just talk like any other girls/women,giving wrong remarks on subject that you dont understand.SORRY if i was a bit rude the other day.

          • Don’t bathe in dirty water.

            It has turned your mind to mush.

            Now go away. You are an embarrassment to your country.

          • hahaha……so you are backing out.good, finally you realise somebody here in india can challenge you.so next time becareful when you say something bad about indians,we indians can fight in a very nasty way.this is only me,i havent called my other indian friends in,if they come in you will run helter skelter.

          • I will be happy to talk to an educated Indian.

            Obviously, that isn’t you.

          • you are uneducated as well,thats why your knowledge is very little in every subject you are talking about.you said you are atheist but dont know what atheism is all about.you have no good knowledge in science,atheism,spiritualism and general knowledge.i doubt whether you know what HIGGS BOSON theory is or worst still may be you dont know where LARGE HADRON COLLIDER is located.you might have not heard about it at all.person like you are only good at talking not good at doing. feel embarassing talking to elementary school graduate like you.

          • again i m telling you,you dont come from great country like america or japan or germany or at least england.you are from canada,one of the unpopular countries among the western block.your country doesnt even produce any world renowned products like handphones,vehicles,electronic products or anything else.so dont think you are great that come from a great country.here in asia we dont respect canada and canadians and most of them dont even know where canada is.so wanna continue,come on say something bad about indian,i love to give you back….

          • u are actually crazy,do u know what is spiritualism all about?,do u know whats surrender to god is?let them dunk in filthy water and get sick or die,so that doesnt mean its not a spiritual practice.Emily u just take care of your backside and dont worry about others,we know how to take care of our health otherwise india wouldnt be having 1 billion plus population.

  2. Crazy peoples, Calling Ganga as Mother of Rivers but NAGA Sadhus play in NAKED body with Mother Ganga…what is this non sense.. and their belief

    • whats your religion,why you are so concern about indian culture and NAGA SADHUS.we dont disturb other people,other religion and other culture.so why you wanna be busy body,we call GANGA is our mother thats our business,if our practice is wrong and god wants to send us to hel,let it be.thats not your business.yeah u are right our belief is stupid,u are clever.so what?we never ask your advise,shut your backside and do your business dont interfere in ours,never invite people like you.

      • If you refrained from all further comment you would improve your case!

        • john what you are trying to say…..

          • Interestg comments. :) spirituality is science.
            Has anyone seen that documentry on the ganges
            Has

  3. I just think the river needs a good clean up. It must be so heavily polluted. Time to honour the sacred Ganges by looking after it.
    We have got serious flooding in our country and just a few dead cattle and human excrement has raised bacteria to dangerous levels. I wouldn’t want to guess bacteria levels in the Ganges. As the Ganges is visited not just by local people but pilgrims worldwide it’s up to everyone to make the difference to protect the future of the Ganges.

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