Wednesday, January 19, 2022

Raise the Temperature

Government urgently needs to launch a public awareness campaign to contain swine flu.

By: Express News Service |
February 23, 2015 12:00:11 am

There is something depressingly familiar about the current anxieties over swine flu, or H1N1. That India is in the grip of a renewed outbreak is indisputable: over 11,000 cases have been reported, with more than 700 fatalities — a death rate of almost 7 per cent, nearly double that in 2009. But the resurgence of the virus and the accompanying panicky headlines are not the only carryovers from 2009. The government’s response has been similarly lacking. In 2009, when a pandemic was declared, India’s stressed public health system scrambled to contain the spread of the disease, with an inadequate number of testing laboratories, few dispensaries that stocked the virus and, most damaging, a complete lack of a public communication strategy. Fast forward to 2015, and it seems the government has learnt little from experience; it continues to careen from one epidemiological crisis to another, despite a long history of having to deal with them.

To combat any possible contagion effectively, not only must the state ensure that it has adequate stockpiles of medicines and vaccines, if they exist — reports now suggest they do — it must also instil confidence in people that it is prepared to deal with an outbreak. On this front, the government has performed abysmally. Reports of hospitals running out of Oseltamivir, used to treat swine flu, has stoked fears, prompting hoarding and the risk of self-medication. The Drug Controller General of India has written to over 10,000 chemists all over the country to stock the medicine, but the capacity to respond immediately is hindered because of labyrinthine licensing procedures. There have also been contradictory noises on the availability of the vaccine, with some reports suggesting that the government intends for it to be used to inoculate health workers — who certainly need to be protected — with not enough left over for the general public.

Even more serious, however, is the government’s languid approach to launching a public awareness campaign. The government is now, slowly and much too late, putting out advertisements to educate the public on preventive measures and how one might contract the virus. The extent of the government’s abject failure on this ground was made distressingly clear when Mamata Banerjee, the chief minister of West Bengal and the person ultimately spearheading her state’s response to the disease, claimed that mosquito bites cause the spread of swine flu. Sadly, she is only a high-profile example of how little there is in the way of accurate, and potentially life-saving, information among the public. The government must urgently ramp up its communication efforts to ensure that possible patients seek medical help early enough for treatment to work, while others take precautions to avoid getting infected. That is essential to arresting the spread of the infection.

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