Indian government plays down swine flu epidemic which has killed 833 so far

Over 14,000 people have been affected so far and the death toll till yesterday had reached 833. The swine flu epidemic in India is spread across the northern states – mainly – though deaths have also been reported in Telengana. But health officials both at state level and in the central government are resisting any discussion and insist that all is under control.

There are reviews and review committees galore and the bureaucratic process is in full swing. State and central government health departments are assiduously collecting data. But state assemblies will not allow debate. There is no shortage of medicines. Health departments “are on the job” but the number of states affected and the number of deaths are rising.

It is not so much being in denial as trying to sweep “unpleasantness” under some bureaucratic carpet. The public private partnership in health care is broken. It is the partnership of an underfunded and hopelessly inadequate public service and a rampant and avaricious private sector. Private hospitals are turning away “public” patients – who they are normally obliged to accept – on the grounds of lacking isolation wards. Private labs are charging exorbitant rates for tests. Tamiflu is being hoarded for the use of paying patients.

DNAEvery time a disease outbreak is reported, the government swings into action. High level review meetings are held in the health ministry and the cabinet secretariat, guidelines are issued for states, health minister visits hospitals and makes reassuring statements that  there is ‘no shortage of drugs and vaccines’. On the ground, however, government hospitals are crowded with patients complaining about lack of proper care, confusion prevails on diagnostic tests and medicines, and generally there is an atmosphere of panic among the general public. This is pretty much the picture whenever a disease outbreak occurs in India or there is a threat of a pandemic touching Indian shores. We have had a series of them in the past decade – Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), Avian influenza (bird flu), swine flu, Ebola and so on. The current outbreak of Influenza A (H1N1) — popularly called swine flu because it originally got transmitted to humans from swine — is no different. The last major outbreak of this flu in India was in 2009 when Influenza A (H1N1) was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation. ….. 

…. The private sector today provides nearly 80 per cent of outpatient care and about 60 per cent of inpatient care. However, when outbreaks like swine flu or SARS occur private sector draws into a shell. Patients are denied admission on the pretext of private hospitals not having isolation wards or the fear of losing medical tourists. Pathological labs start charging exorbitant fees for conducting diagnostic tests, as has been happening in the case of the current outbreak. Chemists begin hoarding or black marketing essential drugs like oseltamivir (trade name Tamiflu), working in tandem with private doctors and hospitals.

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