Swine flu deaths have now broken the 100 mark in India. At first, it seemed like a scare concentrated mainly in Maharashtra—but the flu has penetrated several Indian cities, across the length of the country.
Now that public panic has begun to subside, it’s time to evaluate the country’s response—and how it should combat the infliction in the time to come.
The government has received a lot of flak for how it has handled the crisis. Some of this has been warranted, some of it not. The pandemic stretched the limits of our public health delivery system, and it demonstrated how health reporting, testing and communication are in disarray. India needs to continue to work on this coordination—especially across public and private hospitals and clinics.
But the Union health ministry has done well in several respects. It set forth clear guidelines for different categories of symptoms. It has kept the drug to combat the flu, oseltamivir, well regulated and prevented disastrous flu mutations.
There is still confusion over how the ministry will ensure the availability of these antiviral drugs. It may require licensing for chemists who retail it. Such strict regulation is imperative. These drugs should be stockpiled, and dispersed across India’s urban areas, concentrating on the hardest-hit areas. After all, much of the swine flu mortality has occurred in urban India.
Much more can still be done. Screening takes place at India’s international airports. Similar processes should be strengthened at domestic airports as this, too, is a potent route for its spread. It is not feasible to set up screening centres at every urban port of entry and departure—bus terminals or railway stations, for example—but screening centres are essential in high-risk areas.
Despite earnest efforts by the ministry, misinformation continues to be rampant. Stories abound of doctors or chemists making incorrect diagnoses, or wrongly suggesting incomplete courses of drugs. It is not feasible to reach out to every Indian citizen, but the government should continue to inform health practitioners of swine flu truths, procedures and protocols.
Swine flu is here in India. It has been deadly, but it has not crippled the nation. India needs to be vigilant at all times.
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