Though the government is reluctant to call it a pandemic, the rise in the number of swine flu cases has created much panic among the general public. The death toll from swine flu in 2015 alone has crossed the 600 mark with over 9,000 affected, prompting the Centre to order additional stocks of medicines and diagnostic kits.
The actual number cases, however, could be much higher because of poor access to health facilities and inadequate surveillance. Consequently, the number of deaths also could be higher too. States like Gujarat, Rajasthan and Telangana have been worst affected, with many others coming under the scanner. Amid these reports, the Centre, along with the various state governments, has begun to combat the virus on war-footing. The underlying narrative that has emerged from this entire episode is the poor state of public health infrastructure and the lack of awareness in the most affected states.
Despite the option of adequate vaccination, most public health officials and practitioners have been found to be unaware of the level of preparedness required, besides a gross shortage of diagnostic kits and anti-viral medications such as Tamiflu. The most important way to control the virus, however, is through spreading awareness of preventive measures like wearing masks in public spaces and hand washing, among others. Although private news media outlets have taken the effort to spread awareness, the Centre and State governments have been woefully slow and inadequate in issuing preparedness alerts. Also unlike Telangana, which has two government-approved virology laboratories, Rajasthan has no such facility and samples are sent to Delhi.
Experts have also attributed the outbreak to weather conditions. Studies conducted since 2009 have reportedly shown that the outbreak of swine flu, depending on the state, either occurs during the winters or during monsoons. Health experts, however, have been unable to unanimously agree on the correlation between the virus and weather conditions. To further compound matters, there is little clarity over when one should administer the vaccine available for swine flu. Although big cities and towns may find a way to tackle the situation, such a scenario does not bode well for the hinterlands where 75 per cent of the people live. Although the present dispensation had made some initial noises of ‘health insurance for all’, it has not even begun the process of fixing the necessary health infrastructure required to utilise the minimal funds allocated for public health.
The private health sector, meanwhile, continues to grow at 15 per cent a year. India spends about 1 per cent of its GDP on public health, compared to 3 per cent in China and 8.3 per cent in the United States. It is about time the government woke up.