Policy conflict after first swine flu death

Policy conflict after first swine flu death
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First Published: Wed, Aug 05 2009. 12 21 AM IST

Updated: Wed, Aug 05 2009. 12 21 AM IST
New Delhi: India’s first swine flu fatality in Pune has drawn conflicting policy responses from the Maharashtra state government and the Union government even as experts say that there is no cause for panic—yet.
While Maharashtra invoked the Epidemic Act in Pune and Satara districts on Tuesday, the Union government, on the same day, eased its guidelines and said that only individuals with severe swine flu symptoms need to be hospitalised. Previously, every individual suspected to be suffering from swine flu was required to check into a government health facility.
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Meanwhile, experts say there’s no reason to panic and that the virus hasn’t become deadlier since it was first reported in India on 16 May.
“Based on our analysis, there’s nothing especially noteworthy about the strain that was isolated from the victim,” said A.C. Mishra, director, National Institute of Virology, Pune, referring to 14-year-old Reeda Sheikh, a Pune schoolgirl—India’s first swine flu casualty.
The government research lab is one of the laboratories designated by the World Health Organization (WHO) to test for H1N1 in India.
Also See 10 Things You Should Know About Swine Flu (Graphics)
As of 3 August, India had 558 cases of swine flu, of which 470 have been treated and discharged. Pune is one of the worst hit with at least 60 cases, or 64% of the 94 instances of swine flu in Maharashtra.
The H1N1 influenza pandemic, which has till date killed 816 and infected 134,000 people around the world is now so widespread that WHO says it is no longer mandatory for countries to track and report the flu’s spread.
The new norms announced by the government will, however, not apply to passengers identified during screening at the airports.
“We have made this change because many people are apprehensive to get themselves clinically examined at a government health facility even if they display flu like symptoms,” said Vineet Choudhry, joint secretary, ministry of health and family welfare.
Though no clear trends have emerged in India as to which patient groups are at the highest risk, doctors say that the incidence of the disease is likely to worsen over the next few months due to the humid conditions as well as an approaching winter.
Flu fears: Women wait to receive medical attention for suspected H1N1 influenza at a hospital in Pune on Tuesday. Reuters
“We’ll have to wait and check how the H1N1 combines with local seasonal flu strains. There’s no estimate of the disease burden in India,” said Shobha Broor, a senior microbiologist at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
There is currently no vaccine to prevent the flu. However, a number of vaccine manufacturers are working to develop the vaccine. Some manufacturers are expected to have the vaccine ready by September. In India, Serum Institute of India, Panacea Biotec and Bharat Biotech will be making the vaccine.
The government, however, said it had enough anti-viral supply in case of a contingency.
“At any given time we maintain a stockpile of 10 million doses of antiviral oseltamivir. We also have an additional arrangement for six million doses,” said Choudhry.
Though countries such as Vietnam, the Netherlands and South Africa also reported their first swine flu casualties on Monday and Tuesday, experts say that compared to previous pandemics, such as the Asian flu of 1957 and the 1918 Spanish flu, the current pandemic strain isn’t as dangerous.
“The case-fatality ratio (deaths per reported cases) has been pretty low and initial fears of its potency have died down,” said Sunil Lal, a scientist who was studying the genetic structure of the H1N1 strains at the US-based Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, till last month. “But the future is still uncertain. You never know what happens if the virus combines with seasonal flu strains. The Spanish flu became a killer many months after it was first identified.”
jacob.k@livemint.com
PTI contributed to this story.
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First Published: Wed, Aug 05 2009. 12 21 AM IST