KOCHI: The past few weeks have been harrowing for us as a nation. We have watched in shock as unprecedented floods devastated much of Kerala and parts of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. The deluge wrecked everything in its path, destroying property, separating families, taking lives and uprooting entire communities. When I visited Kodagu to study the damage and commiserate with some of those affected, I saw first-hand how the rains had utterly changed the course of people’s lives and livelihoods, as their homes and farms had literally gone downhill.
We have seen enduring images of rescue workers in each state working around the clock to evacuate communities before the floods hit, or rescue those trapped in their homes or under landslides, desperately in need of food and drinking water. We have read stories of doctors and health workers who tirelessly served in the relief camps, wading through the murky waters, and going door-to-door distributing relief materials and medicines to prevent diseases.
We have seen small acts of bravery by people from all walks of life, who have come together to help the military and state machinery. At a time when communal tension often rears its ugly head, we have seen mosques and temples opening their doors without enquiring about the religion of the affected.
Now, as the floodwater begins to finally recede, the real challenge of reconstruction beckons. We have to care for the families of the close to 400 people reportedly killed, the dozens still missing and nearly a million people in relief camps waiting to be rehabilitated. While governments are working to rebuild civic infrastructure, it is important that we address one of the biggest challenges in the days ahead – potential outbreaks of infectious diseases.
Already, communicable diseases have begun claiming lives in affected areas. Leptospirosis, more commonly known as rat fever, has affected nearly 200 people and claimed several lives in the last few weeks. Hundreds more are likely to be affected. Outbreaks of acute diarrheal disease, chicken pox, and Hepatitis A were reported in the flood’s aftermath. Other diseases like typhoid, cholera, and dengue threaten to spread equally rapidly, given people’s current living conditions.
Large numbers of people have been forced into relief camps, sometimes with limited access to clean water or clean clothes, making it easy for communicable diseases to spread. The floods have also destroyed medicine stocks in over 400 primary health centers, leaving people vulnerable to outbreaks.
While state and central governments have been working hard for relief and rehabilitation, there is no time to rest or pat our own backs. We must focus our attention on ensuring that no more lives are lost because of outbreaks of preventable diseases.
One of the key ways to prevent this is to quickly immunize our children against diseases such as diarrhea, pneumonia, cholera, diphtheria, and measles, so that they are protected and, in turn, provide a certain level of immunity in the entire community. As we saw during the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh, mobile vaccination teams deployed in refugee camps helped to prevent the spread of diseases like cholera and diphtheria.
The government in Kerala is already beginning measles-rubella (MR) and tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccination drives in some flood-hit areas. Both state and central governments need to come together to formulate a comprehensive program for disease management in our flood-affected states. We need more of the incredible fortitude and goodwill that we have seen in these past weeks.
All of us must come together in support of the government as they deploy teams for assessing health risks of affected areas, provide quick medical support, particularly preventive care, and gradually rebuild our damaged primary health infrastructure. We need to make sure the active cooperation between non-governmental organizations and the government health care system to ensure that, there are no stock-outs of essential medicines and drugs and safe injection practices are followed.
As we learn lessons from this disaster on how to work more respectfully with nature, we must also persevere to ensure that our fellow countrymen do not fall further prey to preventable and treatable diseases. Rajeev Gowda is a Rajya Sabha MP. (The views expressed by the author are his own)