India is reeling under its worst swine flu outbreak in half a decade with over 12,000 cases and 800 deaths within seven weeks. But the feared viral infection has killed far fewer people this season than the previous years because more people are getting tested and treated. In October 2011, the World Health Organization declared the H1N1 virus, which causes ‘swine flu’, a seasonal virus that was no more contagious or deadly than other flu viruses, such as the H3N2, which is the other seasonal flu virus causing infection this year.
The fact that more people are testing positive for the virus while the number of deaths remains low indicates that public awareness is high and screening systems are robust. States with good public infrastructure such as Delhi have recorded the highest number of cases but very few deaths, while Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Telangana are reporting a high number of cases and deaths. These states have launched massive public awareness drives over the past week, and the drop in fatalities shows the plan’s working.
Since health is a state subject, the health infrastructure and priority given to the outbreak by respective governments affects the quality of response. Most cases are being reported from state capitals and large cities. A state like Bihar, with a large population, has reported no cases or deaths, while Odisha has had six cases and just one death. In Uttar Pradesh, almost all cases have been reported in Lucknow, the state capital. It’s impossible that rural India escaped the swine flu infection — it’s more likely that people have not got tested because they don’t know what to do, where to go or don’t have access to labs and hospitals diagnosing and treating infection. Prescribing the antiviral oseltamivir shortens the duration and lowers the severity of the illness while making the affected person less contagious. With India indigenously manufacturing the medicine, there is no shortage. All the state governments need to do is ensure these medicines reach the people who need them.