New Delhi: In the wake of the swine flu pandemic that has so far claimed 99 lives and afflicted 15,510 people elsewhere in the world, India plans to compile an annual database of seasonal flu infections and mortality rates by the end of this year.
Worldwide, seasonal flu epidemics claim some 50,000 lives annually. But no details on the number of flu infections and mortality are available for India. “Seasonal flu isn’t as serious in India as it is in the United States,” said V.M. Katoch, director general, Indian Council of Medical Research, or ICMR. “But we plan to step up our Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme, to compile more information on seasonal flu trends.”
Seasonal flu outbreaks that are triggered by a bug or a virus cocktail are generally harmless, but according to the Centers for Disease Control in the US, respiratory illnesses triggered by these viruses have resulted in several deaths.
Scientists also say country-wise study of flu trends are important since mortality rates from flu infections in one country cannot be used to predict the possible impact in another country. A recent study said the mortality rates of the current A/H1N1, or swine flu, pandemic in Mexico was 4 in 1,000, which was just about as lethal as flu epidemics every year. “We can’t assume that 0.4% of India’s population will be affected if the virus were to spread in India,” said Shobha Broor, a professor at the department of microbiology at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
India has taken emergency measures to prevent an outbreak of swine flu by setting up surveillance teams to screen passengers at several airports across the country. So far, no case of swine flu has been reported in the country.
Says Shahid Jameel, a scientist at the International Centre for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology: “We have no basis for comparing the virulence or severity of any pandemic (in India). Several people may have died of the flu in India and we wouldn’t know, because this is not actively tracked and monitored in the country.”
But experts add that India’s tropical temperatures—unsuitable for flu viruses—and a host of competing bacteria such as those which cause cholera and tuberculosis are reasons why flu viruses may never pose a big problem. “Most victims of the flu in the US and Japan are the old and people with other health complications,” said Katoch “We have a young population and typically face competition from so many other germs that effects of flu aren’t apparent in our population.”
“We used to monitor these (seasonal flu viruses) in the 1980s, and then stopped. In 2004, because of bird flu (epidemic) we started monitoring them again but I can’t give you annual cases and death,” said A.C. Mishra, director, National Institute of Virology, or NIV. A government body under ICMR, NIV is one of the labs designated to test for influenza strains circulating in the general population. Mishra added “We are working on a plan to create a database later this year.”