When flu turns fatal

Just as spring was setting in and people were heaving a sigh of relief, unseasonal rains lashed many parts of the country towards the end of February, stirring a familiar fear. Most of the states, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Delhi and Gujarat that received heavy rainfall, have reported a high number of swine flu cases this winter; cases of deaths in these states have touched triple digits. Low temperature means that H1N1, the virus that causes swine flu, is likely to thrive in the air for some more time.

Going by the wisdom of public health experts, swine flu is as benign as any other seasonal flu, but people are wary of it as they fail to distinguish between the two. And by the time they do, it might be too late for some. Take the case of Kailash Chand, a 40-year-old daily wager from Guja village in Rajasthan’s Jaipur district. Despite cold, cough and mild fever, he avoided going to a doctor for a week and continued to work at a construction site. “We thought he would recover in some time. But his condition kept worsening. He became weaker and could not walk properly,” says Ramavtar, Chand’s nephew. They consulted the village health worker, called the local auxiliary nurse and midwife (ANM), but she did not know about the flu or its treatment. So Ramavtar took Chand to Kotputli town where doctors took three long days to diagnose the ailment. “They said no hospital in Kotputli had the expertise to treat him and referred him to Sawai Man Singh (SMS) hospital,” Ramavtar says.

SMS hospital in Jaipur is a super-specialty government hospital in the state. By the time Chand travelled 117 km to reach the hospital, he had developed infection in both the lungs and breathlessness. The doctors at SMS hospital had to immediately admit him in the intensive care unit (ICU). Till the time this story went to the press, Chand’s condition was critical and he was on life-support system. Chand is one of the 5,782 people in Rajasthan affected by swine flu; the state has recorded 286 deaths. Rajasthan is one of the poorest states in India, lagging behind other states not only in economic growth, but also in education and public health. Public health experts blame lack of awareness and poor healthcare infrastructure for the maximum number of swine flu cases in Rajasthan. Similar excuses are also cited for states like Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh that have equally bad health infrastructure; they have witnessed 1,899 and 1,077 cases respectively.

Panic and pressure
Take Gujarat. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s home state, whose model of development has been adopted by many states in India, has witnessed the highest number of swine flu deaths (292) this season and recorded 4,904 cases. Delhi does not fare any better. The national capital has some of the best healthcare facilities and institutes in the country. But with 3,310 cases of swine flu in the past two months and 10 deaths, Delhi has become a panic zone. A sense of fear and confusion is evident from conversations on the street. Face masks have become the norm, worn by weary Delhiites as a precautionary measure. An advertisement by the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare is being regularly aired on FM radio channels to create awareness about swine flu.

A K Gadpayle, additional medical superintendent and nodal officer, swine flu, in government-run Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) hospital in Delhi, says people are anxious about the disease. “They are not willing to believe us when we say they do not need medicine or get themselves tested for swine flu. We are under a lot of pressure to conduct unnecessary tests.”

The panic is much more pronounced in private hospitals. “Patients sometimes force us to admit them, leave alone testing,” says Jasvinder Paintal, doctor at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, a chain of private hospitals. The management has earmarked its Delhi hospital’s first floor for swine flu treatment. There are 35 beds in the ward and 10 in the ICU.

Some are even bypassing the doctors and getting themselves tested for the virus. Dr Lal Path Lab, a leading chain of private laboratories in Delhi, has pressed its workforce to collect throat swabs of suspected swine flu patients from home and send them the test results via email. “We do not want our premises to be infected,” says a spokesperson of the laboratory chain. On an average, the lab was collecting nearly 50 samples a day. These are rarely being done on the basis of prescription.

Those who cannot afford private labs go to government hospitals to get tested. This creates unnecessary burden on the healthcare system, says Puneet Bedi, senior consultant at Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals. For example, at RML hospital, a staff of 10 doctors and nurses have been assigned to look after swine flu patients. Ideally, they should not attend to more than 200 patients a day, but since January, the outpatient department has been flooded with about 500 patients daily, eager to get tested and treated for swine flu. As a result, the doctors have not been able to attend to those patients who have tested positive for H1N1.

This is precisely why after the swine flu pandemic in 2009 the government introduced protocols based on guidelines of WHO. Under this, patients who have mild fever, cough, sore throat, body ache, nausea and diarrhoea need to stay at home to avoid spread of infection and be monitored for 48 hours.

High-risk groups-children, pregnant women, the elderly and those with low immunity-with the same symptoms but higher fever need to be given medicine oseltamivir (Tamiflu) and confined to home. Those showing all the symptoms in higher degree need immediate hospitalisation. Widespread panic has led to blatant violation of these protocols.

This season, even though swine flu has not been declared an epidemic in India, its spread has been similar to that of an epidemic. In May 2009, when swine flu first hit the country, the number of cases till December was 27,236, with 981 deaths. The situation this year has been far more severe. In just two months, 22,240 cases and 1,198 deaths have been reported.

The urgency to bring the situation under control was evident from the worried look on the faces of all MPs in Parliament on February 27. A day before the new National Democratic Alliance government presented its first Union Budget, swine flu was the most dominant issue during the question hour. Queries were usual: how does swine flu spread; what is the government’s plan of action; do we have enough laboratories for diagnosis?

People are asking these questions not only in India, but in other countries as well. Since January this year, H1N1 has manifested itself globally, particularly in northern Africa and West Asia, including Jordan, Morocco and Tunisia.

Threat, even a century later

H1N1 is not new. The world first came to know about it in 1918, when it killed over 50 million people worldwide and infected another 500 million. But that was the pre-antiviral era. In the past century, medical science has made tremendous progress. Following the swine flu pandemic in 2009, scientists developed medicines and vaccines to fight the virus. Moreover, swine flu is not an efficient killer. Though it poses death risk only to high-risk groups and those suffering from chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and heart diseases, lives can be saved with proper medical care. What, then, could be the reason for the exponential increase in the number of swine flu cases and deaths in India?
Public health experts blame the current outbreak on decades of failure to invest adequately in basic health services and infrastructure. Consider Rajasthan, the state with the second-highest swine flu fatality in the country. Only 10 hospitals are equipped to treat swine flu patients and all of them are located in cities.

In the past two months, SMS hospital alone received 1,260 cases of H1N1 flu from across the state and recorded 85 deaths, out of which 46 were from outside Jaipur. Many had come from as far off as Bikaner (338 km from Jaipur), Jhunjhunu (170 km), Alwar (159 km) and Tonk (106 km). “Treatment is effective when provided within first two days of onset of symptoms. But patients came to us five to seven days later,” says Ajit Singh, nodal officer, swine flu, SMS Hospital. Unlike in 2009, this time health authorities had enough stock of Tamiflu. Singh says many patients who died at SMS hospital could have been treated in their home town as the government has made Tamiflu available at primary and community health centres.

Poor awareness

Not all health workers, like ANMs and ASHAs (accredited social and health activists), are trained to identify swine flu patients and monitor them, says Rajib Dasgupta, faculty, Centre for Social Medicine and Community Health, Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi. Kiran Soni, an ANM in Bagru village near Jaipur, did attend a training programme on swine flu. But she did not realise she had contracted the disease until she was diagnosed with the virus. “Till late January, even doctors in the state did not know that there is a spike in swine flu cases,” says Singh.

As doctors kept referring their patients to bigger hospitals or those in cities, it contributed to the death toll. First, families with financial constraints do not take patients out of their native place, increasing the probability of deaths. Second, in case of contagious diseases like swine flu, high mobility of patients can result in faster spread of the infection. Proper protection to health workers is an important step to check the spread of infectious diseases, which is also missing in the country. A doctor treating patients suspected of swine flu at the emergency ward of SMS hospital says, “I am working in a high-risk area, but have been given the cheapest mask to cover my face. This is true for other health workers on duty.” DOWN TO EARTH

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