New Delhi: Heavy rains and flooding have claimed over 370 lives and displaced over 1 million people in Kerala. The flood waters have receded but fears of an outbreak of water- and vector-borne diseases have grown, prompting the state public health department to come up with a 30-day action plan. Kerala health minister K.K. Shailaja spoke about the preparations and the lessons learnt from the natural calamity. Edited excerpts from an interview:
What is the ministry’s plan to prevent a disease outbreak?
Our plan is to remove the dumped waste and disinfect the areas. Then we plan the prevention of water-borne disease. We will ensure safe drinking water by cleaning the source of potable water and through the distribution of chlorine tablets. We will also ensure blood, stool and rectal swab testing of patients with water-borne diseases. We are looking at the quality of food items stored at Anganwadis and schools. We will dispose of spoiled food items properly and ensure availability of fresh food items. We will look at ensuring the food items stored in houses during the floods are safe to consume. We are convening a special review meeting for preventing vector-borne diseases. We will conduct a study of vector density and observation for larvae in the flood-affected areas. Fogging squads will be deployed in these areas and collection and identification of mosquitoes will be done. Spraying of insecticides in stagnant waste water will also be done. Snakes are going to be yet another problem after people return to their homes. We will conduct health education programmes on the possibility of electrocution from damaged electronic items. We will ensure availability of medicines and treatment aids in all health institutions across districts. We will conduct medical camps and work on effective utilization of the service of laboratories for confirmation of diseases. We are also looking at mobile laboratories and water ambulance services.
How difficult has it been to tackle the flood situation so far?
The major problem is transportation as most roads were submerged. Medical help or relief material may not be reaching many flood victims. Currently, our priority is health and sanitation. Medical professionals are finding it difficult to reach affected areas. We have planned a major health drive to prevent communicable diseases that are likely to emerge after the flood. We are also facing problems of disposing dead animals. We cannot bury them in towns. We have started our immediate post-flood recovery activity plan, which is focusing on checking short- and longer-term risks to health from food contamination, giving practical advice to people willing to re-enter their homes, deployment of clean-up workers and prevention of health-related secondary disasters.
Is there a shortage of things, given the scale of devastation?
We have enough relief material with us now. We are thankful to all who helped us in such a difficult situation. While ample relief material, from food, drinking water and daily need items, is landing from across India, we are struggling to segregate them and send them to the needy in relief camps. Besides, all the relief material, which includes medicines, food items, sanitary napkins, antiseptic liquids and clothes, etc., are all mixed up. For our staff, it is becoming difficult to find out what is required in which relief camp. We have over 10,000 camps where people have taken shelter, along with thousands of other relief camps. Every relief camp has its own needs, food and drinking water being common for all. Major problem is of clothing. However, we have received tonnes of clothes in donation, providing right size to right people and right children, is a tough job. We are looking at streamlining these items.
What is the situation of government and private hospitals? When will they resume normal functioning?
At least 481 primary health centres (PHCs), 137 community health centres (CHCs) and 19 dispensaries have been badly affected by the flood. We were also short of medicines. But private sector, NGOs and the central government have helped us a lot in providing all kinds of medical help and giving medicines. We are running fever clinics and have a surveillance system with 36 control rooms where any water-borne disease outbreak can be reported. To ensure that no flood-affected parts of Kerala has a shortage of doctors, we have deployed Ayurveda and homeopathy doctors who can be used in case of emergency. The private hospitals have helped us in a major way by sharing the increased patient burden and by sending their doctors to the relief camps on boats. We have urged the private sector to help us in setting up temporary hospitals and providing us with medical equipment.
How did other organisations help?
Soon after the floods, individuals, non-governmental organizations and private companies, besides the centre and other state governments, started donating money and daily requirement items, so that the flood victims could cope with the situation. The items being supplied range from packaged drinking water, bread, biscuits, buns, salt, wheat products, ketchup, disinfectants, dairy whitener, liquid hand wash, soaps, tetra-packed juices, packed and ready-to-eat food, to coffee and milk. As transportation is a problem, there are many relief camps which are facing shortage of various items. We are trying to reach out to as many relief camps as possible everyday, but there is a possibility that many things, such as medicines and sanitary napkins, have not reached the people who desperately need it. Private hospitals have been sending their doctors to our relief camps.
What are the lessons the state government has learnt from the disaster? What precautions will you take from the next monsoon season to mitigate the effect of floods or other natural disasters?
We are disturbed, but also have this confidence that we will be able to tackle this situation. Our department is taking all measures, utilising all our available resources and working actively to check the outbreak of an epidemic and handling rehabilitation. There is a lot to do in future, ranging from strengthening our healthcare system along with considering environmental issues. We are working on it and we hope we don’t have to face this situation ever again.