Medical Issues

Medical Issues

From the start, the medical response ranged from inadequate to catastrophic. On THAT NIGHT, hospital officials frantically called Union Carbide, seeking a treatment protocol. When they finally got through, they were blithely assured that the gas which was killing thousands was “nothing more than a potent tear gas” and that victims merely had to “wash their eyes with water.” In a show of publicity as the bodies stacked up, Carbide flew a series of “top medical experts” to Bhopal to sing a chorus of reassurance. Dr. Hans Weil - reprimanded for unethical conduct by a US court for fudging medical data on behalf of the Johns-Manville corporation - predicted that ‘most victims would fully recover’. Pulmonary specialist Thomas Petty, also flown to Bhopal by Carbide, said that victims were ‘recovering rapidly’. No report made by Carbide-sponsored doctors was made available to the Indian government.

Other ‘expertise’ included Carbide’s Dr. Bipin Awasia, who sent a telex to Bhopal recommending treatment with sodium thiosulphate. When in Bhopal, flanked by lawyers, he said he’d been mistaken. As a result, tens of thousands of ailing victims were denied a treatment that double blind clinical trials had shown to be effective. Success of the treatment would have proven that the gases had crossed into the bloodstream, thus generating more expensive damages against Carbide.

Sarmil (6 years old) lives in Nawab Colony, 150 meters from Union Carbide factory
(Photo Credits: Micha Patault)

The Indian Supreme court directed Carbide to build a 500 bed hospital from its own money. Instead, Carbide put £1000 into a trust in London and tried to transfer into this its shares in UCIL that had been seized by the Bhopal court due to Carbide’s non-appearance to face manslaughter charges. In 1994 it succeeded, thus evading the Bhopal court where the judge declared the transfer ‘malafide’. The 350 bed hospital took nearly ten years to build and within a year of opening was found to be profiteering with private patients, despite being bound to treat gas victims for eight years ‘in the first instance’.

To this day, the treatment of the Bhopal victims is impeded because Dow-Carbide callously refuses to share all its medical information on the toxic effects of the gases released that night, regarding the information as a “trade secret”. (15) As a result, effective long-term medical treatment has been hampered. Even worse, the effects of the gases on future generations remains unclear even as health effects manifest themselves with disturbing regularity among the children of gas-exposed parents. Since the disaster, the city has been plagued with an epidemic of cancers, menstrual disorders and what one doctor described as "monstrous births.”

Today, the failure of the official system of health care contributes largely to the medical disaster in Bhopal. All research and monitoring of the long-term health effects of Union Carbide's gases were abandoned in 1994; they were only recently restarted in response to years of pressure from Bhopal survivors. So far no treatment protocols for symptom complexes associated with toxic exposure have been established and symptomatic treatment remains the mainstay of medical response. The indiscriminate prescription of steroids, antibiotics and psychotropic drugs is compounding the damage caused by the gas exposure. "Sambhavna" is a Sanskrit / Hindi word which means "possibility". Read as "sama" and "bhavna" it means: "similar feelings" or "compassion".

Sambhavana Clinic, supported by public donations, provides free alternative medicine treatment to victims.
The Sambhavana Clinic, supported by public donations, provides free alternative medicine treatment to victims.
(Photo Credits: Bhopal.Org)

In the prevailing situation of despair, the Sambhavna Trust believes in creating possibilities by generating compassion. At Sambhavna, survivors are offered free medical care through allopathy, ayurveda [an indigenous system of medicine based on herbs] and Yoga. The 21 staff members of the Sambhavna clinic [among whom 9 are survivors themselves] include five physicians, two yoga and two Panchakarma therapists and five community health workers who carry out health surveys, health education and community programs for better health. 

The work carried out by the Sambhavna Trust since 1996 has shown that it is possible to evolve simple, safe, effective, ethical and participatory ways of treatment monitoring and research for the survivors of Bhopal. However, Sambhavna is small compared to the magnitude and complexity of the disaster. While an estimated 120,000-150,000 survivors of the disaster are today chronically ill, the clinic run by this trust has provided direct treatment to little over 16,000 people and provided support to about the same number through its health initiatives in 10 communities close to the Union Carbide factory.

On April 27, 2005, a new building for the Sambhavna Clinic was inaugurated in Bhopal. Designed by the eminent Indian architects Shri Kishore Charavarti, Shri Yatin Choudhary, and Vishnu Chilotre, a civil engineer, the new clinic building incorporates many aspects of healing and environmental design. One of its most prominent features is a healing garden, in which organic herbs and ayurvedic medicines will be grown for use in the treatment of gas illnesses. For more information about Sambhavna and the new clinic, see In Their Words