Fear in the Air as Swine Flu Sinks its Fangs Deeper

Published: 16th February 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 16th February 2015 08:21 AM   |  A+A-

NEW DELHI:Sheel Goyal, 54, a mother of two, from Model Town was first admitted to a private hospital in the first week of December with fever and chills. She was shifted to a bigger hospital with better facilities. She was diagnosed with swine flu. The pathology lab could not confirm the virus in earlier tests conducted on her. As her condition deteriorated, family members brought her to Sir Ganga Ram Hospital here on December 21. But it was too late. A day before Christmas, she succumbed to the deadly H1N1 virus becoming the National Capital Region’s(NCR) first swine flu victim.

The local Health Department officials even claimed that she had contracted  the virus from DR Congo, but that was later denied. Here alone, 907 cases of swine flu have been recorded. A control room has been set up by the Union Health Ministry to monitor the situation round the clock. Since Goyal’s death, swine flu has claimed six lives, with 1,189 cases being reported so far.

As many as 19 samples of suspected swine flu patients from Chhattisgarh were sent to New Delhi for testing on Sunday. Seven new cases of swine flu were reported in Lucknow and 11 more people succumbed to the disease in different parts of Rajasthan on Sunday.

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Capital Crisis

In Delhi, there are 22 designated hospitals to treat the disease. The Health Department has formed a five-member committee to review swine flu cases. It has nominated 11 District Surveillance Officers (DSOs) to check whether standard operating procedures(SOP) for treatment of H1N1 cases are being followed by hospitals. Four more laboratories, private and government, are being added to the existing eight laboratories for H1N1 tests. The Health Ministry will also ask all the states to provide low-cost testing facilities for swine flu.

Spreading Killer

Between January 1 and February 12 alone, 485 have died in India, according to Additional Secretary, Health, Arun Kumar Panda. Over 6,000 people had tested positive for H1N1. From February 3-10 alone, 206 people have died, taking the grim roll call of death to 407 this year. The worst hit states are Delhi, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana. Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Telangana reported the maximum number of deaths. According to the latest government data, 5,157 swine flu cases have been reported from January 1 till now.

The Health Ministry is pushing for the vaccination of health staff in hospitals who work with H1N1 patients. “We are fully equipped in terms of having sufficient medicines and testing equipment. We immediately respond to any demands made by states. We have enough stocks of medicine in Delhi. And we have already floated tenders to beef up stocks of medicines and diagnostic kits if the need arises in the future,” said Union Health Minister J P Nadda. He has held review meetings in Gujarat and Rajasthan to take stock of the preparations made by the state governments.

Step by Step

The flu pandemic, caused by the H1N1 virus, which originated in Mexico and first appeared in India in 2009, killed 2,700 people between May 2009 and December 2010. In 2014, there were 218 recorded swine flu-related deaths and 937 cases. The H1N1 virus, known as swine flu, is spreading panic across the country with deaths being reported from several states since Monday. Waking up to the gravity of the pandemic, senior Health Ministry officials assessed how prepared  the hospitals and labs were to tackle the flu.

The Centre has asked the state governments to stock up on necessary medicines and make arrangements for treatment of the affected persons in hospitals. “We have also asked the states to create isolation wards in state-run hospitals and have dedicated staff. In Madhya Pradesh, the state government has created facilities to deal with over 1,000 cases, even though there may not be as many.

The states have also been asked to focus on increasing the testing facilities and also spread awareness about the disease so that people can take adequate precautions,” Nadda said. But the authorities sometimes take these to extreme limits.

A Vast Harvest

The largest number of swine flu cases reported this year are from Telangana-- 27 in Hyderabad, while 35 people including 10 children, are being kept under observation. Between January 1- 20, over 150 H1N1 cases were reported. This year, 20 have died. By the end of December, swine flu cases went up in the state, but health officials were slow to assess the extent of the epidemic, which by then went up to double digits every day. A 21-year-old pregnant woman from Hyderabad was admitted to Osmania General Hospital with high fever, cold and coug,complaining of lung infection. After six days, she became just another swine flu statistic. The first swine fu death in Tamil Nadu occurred early last week with a 58-year-old man succumbing to the virus at the Rajiv Gandhi Government General Hospital. In Punjab, the human face of the tragedy was visible in many hospitals. After 50-year-old Suman died in a Ludhiana hospital, her family members alleged “her body was packed by the hospital staff and we were told that it should not be opened”.

The total number of deaths in Punjab and Haryana due to swine flu has touched 36; in the former, 136 are suspected of having contracted the illness and 21 have died. In Haryana, 105 swine flu cases have been reported and 15 have died so far. “The virus thrives in cold weather plus delay in diagnosis because of lack of awareness is pushing up cases in Haryana,” said Ram Niwas, Additional Chief Secretary (Health), Haryana.

Viral Fears

The Health Ministry has also asked the states to ensure sanitation and hygiene in all public places and to create awareness about the symptoms of swine flu, diagnostic facilities required for testing H1N1 virus and the course of treatment.

The government is scrambling to prevent more casualties. But the wheels of bureaucracy are cumbersome. Under the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, the Health Ministry has placed an order for more diagnostic kits to be supplied to labs that conduct tests for H1N1 virus. A total of 60,000 more Oseltamivir-Tamiflu pills and 10,000 N-95 masks are being bought and a tender has been floated for 10,000 more diagnostic kits. The fear of mutation of the virus, leading to antibiotic resistance caused by a patient popping random pills, is worrying doctors.

But Panda says the virus is the same as the one, which appeared in 2009, and that according to research by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR), there has been no virus mutation.

For 70-year-old Animare from Switzerland, it was a dream trip from Delhi to Rajasthan. She had lung cancer. Before time ran out she had wanted to see Rajasthan, a favourite destination for Western tourists. Animaire had flown into Jaisalmer from Delhi, and by the time she reached Jodhpur, she was feeling unwell. Diagnosed with swine flu, she died at M M Hospital two days ago.

Industry experts say that fears of contracting swine flu could cause a loss of `5,500 crore to tourism and airlines sectors. Maharashtra accounts for 7.3 per cent of India’s total foreign tourist share and Rajasthan ranks fifth with around 7 per cent.

Political Flu

The unfolding tragedy has not prevented politicisation of the issue. The Congress has charged the government with “criminal negligence”, accusing it of not making medicines, diagnostic kits and protective gear available on time. Ironically, most of the swine flu deaths occurred in 2009, when the UPA II Government was in power.

In Madhya Pradesh, where around 44 swine flu deaths have been recorded, Congress workers last week staged a demonstration outside Health Minister Narottam Mishra’s home. In Gujarat, which has seen 81 deaths and 744 recorded cases of swine flu, the Congress leaders met the Governor alleging that the state government had no preventive measures to combat the pandemic.

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