Millennium Post

Swine flu sweeps through

Swine flu sweeps through
Swine flu has spread in India like never before this year, leaving behind a trail of human casualties.  More than 600 people have died from complications related to the influenza H1N1 virus, or swine flu, and nearly 10,000 people have been tested positive nationwide.

As the government struggles to cope with its spread, large sections of the population, gripped with fear, report flu symptoms. The worst affected states are Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra. The government, however, has said, “It is a matter of worry, but not a matter of panic,” and that it is “closely monitoring” the situation. The dramatic rise in Influenza A (H1N1) virus this year has already claimed more than double the number of lives reported during 2014, which saw 218 deaths and 937 cases. More than 2,700 died of swine flu between May 2009 and December 2010. Although Delhi and Tamil Nadu have registered many cases, deaths are low due to timely diagnosis, treatment, and awareness, according to public health experts.

Swine flu is an infection caused by any one of several types of swine influenza viruses. It is a highly contagious respiratory disease. The virus was first identified in Mexico in April 2009 and was also called the ‘Mexican flu’. It came to be known as swine flu because the virus strain H1N1 closely resembled a known influenza virus that causes illness in pigs. The virus can spread from one human to another and it nearly always occurs in closed groups of people. The influenza spreads particularly fast in closed communities such as schools, colleges, crowded public places or residential areas. They can spread the virus for up to five days after the symptoms set in. For children, however, this is up to seven days.

Symptoms of swine flu are similar to that of seasonal influenza like sore throat, cough, fever, body aches, headaches, chills, lethargy and lack of appetite. Some people have also reported runny nose, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. The flu can be accompanied by complications such as bronchitis, pneumonia, as well as ear and sinus infections. These complications are especially dangerous for the elderly folk, young children, pregnant women, and anyone with a chronic medical condition.

The Health Ministry has been reassuring that it has placed orders to increase the national stock of diagnostic kits for the virus. The Centre also stated that it is procuring 10,000 additional masks and 60,000 doses of Tamiflu (Oseltamivir)-an antiviral medication that blocks the actions of influenza virus types A and B in the body. Various state governments and the Centre, however, have woken up a month after the flu spread far and wide across the country. Only two or three private pathology labs have been designated to conduct the tests, while the drug Tamiflu is available only in government hospitals.  State governments are still placing orders for additional supplies.

 Dr. Pradeep Tara, a physician and chest specialist, who has clinics in East Delhi, says that there is no need for alarm. It is like the seasonal flu and with proper medication and treatment, the contagion will go away. Since January, of the five suspected cases diagnosed by him, only two tested positive for swine flu, he said. The test costs an exorbitant Rs 4,000 to 5,000.

Government authorities have also been reiterating that the incidences will decrease once the winter season comes to an end. Following the 2009 outbreak, the World Health Organisation and public health experts had anticipated and cautioned against sporadic outbreaks of H1N1 influenza virus in the coming years. Since then, expectably, the virus has taken its toll and affected thousands every year. The health departments of various state governments and the Centre have been slow to act this year. The winter season is still prevalent in the North, and the impact on health and economy is bound to be great. Rajasthan and Maharashtra may face a loss of Rs 5,500 crore to its tourism and aviation industries, according to an Assocham assessment.

Getting vaccinated is the most effective way to protect oneself from swine flu. The vaccine ensures that you are 60 per cent less likely to need treatment. The vaccine also offers substantial other benefits including lower incidence of illness, antibiotic use, time lost from work, hospitalisation and deaths.

Health experts have not been able to definitively understand why seasonal flu occurs in the winter. Colder climate may increase the risk of flu in one way; by increasing the transmission of flu when people are confined indoors. However, going outside in winter has nothing to do with catching the flu. The flu season follows the natural life cycle of the virus, not the temperature, say public health experts. How would one justify this year’s swine flu cases in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, which do not experience winter, and also the pandemic of 2009 that occurred in the monsoon season!
Since the viral strain is already endemic to India, constant surveillance and monitoring needs to be strengthened every year.

The author is an independent journalist
K V Venkatasubramanian

K V Venkatasubramanian

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