The background: A village’s prosperity

On the west coast of Kyushu in Japan was a small village called Minamata. By the coast of Shiranui sea. Established in 1889. With fishermen huts. The fishing village prospered through hard work of its dwellers. The village grew to a town in 1912. And in due time the town further prospered. Hard-working men and women. 1949. Minamata became a city.

And then one day disaster struck.

The Report: A unique disease

This is the story of that disaster. This is also the story of marvel of public health. This is the story of resilience- of a city bouncing back to life from a disaster. This is the story of a movie of the same name.

In mid-1950s a funny incident happened in Minamata. The cats of the city went crazy. One by one. To begin with. Then in hordes. Crazy cats. They simply jumped into the sea. Men and women wondered. Why were cats on a suicide spree!!

Before long however, a strange disease began to surface among city folks. People started reporting in hospitals with numbness and loss of sensation. In lips. In limbs. Some presented with more severe conditions. Symptoms that doctors diagnosed as their brains being affected. A disease of the nervous system.

The investigation: Who; What; How

As the number of cats committing suicide and men reporting with a similar disease pattern increased, a team of experts from a higher centre of learning – Kumamoto University came for investigation. A thorough investigation on epidemiological principles of who, what, and how of the problem.

Three things were established early. One, the staple diet of the city was fish. Two, that the city had a large petrochemical plant called Chisso Corporation. Three, Chisso freely dumped its chemical wasted in water of the sea. From which fishermen fished. And public consumed.

With these three things established an investigation was carried out.

To understand who were having the disease. It was clearly established that those who consumed fish in large quantity suffered the most. The disease was not reported from people who did not consume fish. It was also found that some of the visitors to the city who stayed there for short time also did not have the disease.

The next question was around what. It was observed after analysis that Chisso Corporation’s chemical waste was rich in Mercury. Chisso denied that the Mercury was of significant amount. Only much later was it revealed that Chisso had actually dumped over 27 tons of Mercury in the water.

Was Mercury the problem?

Chisso denied. And continued its dumping. Result? Poisoned women gave birth to deformed babies. Neurological defects. Blind. Deaf. Limb paralysis.

By then there was a strong understanding of the how. Chisso dumped large quantity of mercury in water. Fish thrived on that water. Poisoned. Fishermen caught poisoned fish. Cats and citizens ate fish. Were poisoned. Developed neurological problem.

On November 4, 1956 the research group announced its findings.

Minamata disease is considered to be caused by poisoning with heavy metal and presumably enters the body through fish and shellfish.

Post- investigation: The deal

Citizens of Minamata revolted. Protested. 1959.Chisso did what corporations with financial powers do. Tried to make deals. Chisso will cover expenses of treatment of those ill. And as weak and helpless citizens do. They signed a deal. Received compensation. And this deal ruled out any future liability to Chisso.

It took 9 more years. Finally, in 1968 Chisso stopped dumping its mercurial waste in water.

Government figures have calculated that around 3000 people have had the disease now called Minamata disease. And around 1800 have died from it. But experts have said this is a gross underestimation.

Victory to People:

2004, October 16. A historic day in Japan’s legal history. The Supreme Court ordered the Government to pay around 72 Million Yen to the victims as damage.

2010, Chisso was made to pay 2.1 Million Yen (and a monthly allowance) to those that the Government had not identified for compensation. A whooping 50,000 people applied for the compensation. An illustration of how effects of disasters remain for many years after the root cause of the disease has been abolished.

Minamata Disaster is a must lesson for all public health students for it illustrates how beyond genetics and natural infectious agents’ man-made catastrophes affect lives of humans and animals.

Thank you for reading

Further Reading:;

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