Containing Nipah in time
The past week saw the outbreak of Nipah virus in Kerala's Kozhikode and adjoining districts and claimed the lives of 13 people. The virus shows the symptoms of ordinary fever and body ache eventually leads to encephalitis which damages the brain and results in death of the patient. The death of more than 10 people, four from the same family in Soopikkada village in Changaroth gram panchayat of Kerala's Kozhikode district, in quick succession set off the alarm bells across the country. Initially, the health department officials suspected that the virus was spread by fruit bats to humans. But later when their blood and serum were tested at National Institute of High-Security Animal Diseases, Bhopal, the results were negative, showing that the current outbreak of Nipah in Kerala was not due to the fruit bats.
Kerala's famous tourism industry was the first to be affected as both domestic and foreign tourists began cancelling their trip. This is the time when holidaymakers from the Middle East and Saudi Arabia throng to Kerala. Some countries like UAE and Bahrain have advised their citizens in Kerala to take caution against the spread of Nipah virus. In a damage control exercise, the Kerala government has advised the tourists to avoid the districts of Kozhikode, Malappuram, Wayanad, and Kannur. Union Health Ministry has formed a high-level team to tackle the Nipah outbreak in Kerala. The ministry has clarified that there is no need to panic as the outbreak of the Nipah virus is localised and has been contained.
Kerala has a better healthcare system compared to other states and it is because of this reason that the state has been able to identify the disease at an early stage before it could grow into an epidemic. Though Kerala's tourism industry has blamed the media for blowing the issue out of proportion, the outbreak of Nipah comes as a grim reminder of the growing risk of other similar diseases caused by different viruses.
Even before the onset of monsoon, cases of malaria, dengue and chikungunya are being reported from different parts of the country including the National Capital Region (NCR). Normally, the period when these viral diseases are mostly reported is from mid-July to mid-November. During this period, the number of patients suffering from malaria, dengue and chikungunya is simply so high that hospitals can not accommodate all the patients. The situation looks like an epidemic which is beyond the control of the healthcare department.
On the one hand, deadly viruses are emerging as new challenges to the healthcare system, on the other hand, the healthcare infrastructure is proving to be awfully ill-equipped to handle the rush of patients. A long waiting period for different procedures in premier government hospitals and long queues outside primary and district healthcare centres are a common complaint. The patients and their relatives have to undergo untold problems while receiving medical treatments at these centres. The private healthcare system, which offers a reliable parallel system, is often too expensive for the common man. The only way the nation can fight against the large-scale outbreak of diseases is through increasing government investment in the healthcare system. National Health Policy 2017 aims to increase the government spending from the existing 1.15 per cent of the GDP to 2.5 per cent by 2025. The Centre's budgetary allocation to the healthcare sector for 2018-19 is Rs 52,800 crore, which is merely 5 per cent higher than the revised estimate of Rs 50,079.6 crore in 2017-18. Naturally, one cannot expect a serious turnaround in the situation if the budget allocated to the healthcare sector remains on the lower side.
Though the spread of Nipah virus has been contained by an alert and pro-active healthcare system in Kerala, many different diseases, and some caused by Nipah and other deadly viruses, are on the anvil. They can strike anytime with the onset of monsoon but going by the response of the Indian healthcare system in the previous years, our preparedness against these diseases is far from satisfactory. Despite the outbreak of vector-borne diseases on a large scale in the country in the previous years, the government hospitals have not done any additional preparations to combat the emergence and spread of these diseases. It is because of this that the outbreak of Nipah created such a huge panic across the country. Though the source of the virus has yet not been confirmed, it is a good news that the virus has been identified in time and preventive measures are being taken to check its spread to other parts of Kerala and other states. The nation should maintain this alacrity and pro-active approach while dealing with the outbreak of new diseases not in just one state but across the other states in the country.