Six major vector-borne diseases (VBD) — malaria, dengue, chikungunya, filariasis, Japanese encephalitis and visceral leishmaniasis (kala-azar) — are endemic to different parts of India. This year Delhi and the National Capital Region (NCR) are in the grip of the worst outbreak of dengue since 2010 with more than 1,872 officially confirmed cases and five deaths.
The unconfirmed dengue toll stands at 11. In 2010, dengue killed eight people and affected 6,259. There is no vaccination available and public health professionals have warned that the worst is yet to come. On Tuesday in Delhi, a second child infected with dengue died of “medical negligence”.
His father alleged that his son did not get treatment despite being taken to five hospitals, including the government-run Safdarjung Hospital. The dengue outbreak has shown once again how stretched and under-equipped our medical facilities are. Grappling with complaints of medical negligence and unavailability of beds in public and private hospitals, the Delhi government on Wednesday threatened to cancel the licences of private hospitals if they turn away patients suffering from dengue and directed hospitals to hire more doctors and nurses to cope with the influx of patients.
Dengue is spread by infected mosquitoes that breed in water and flourish in the damp monsoon weather. So the questions here are: Why, despite being a yearly occurrence, did the government not take measures ahead of the monsoons? Isn’t preventive action much better than acting after an outbreak?
Sociologist and demographer Monica Das Gupta of the University of Maryland argued in a paper that in democracies like India governments shy away from investing in preventive public health infrastructure because it is politically less rewarding in comparison to providing private goods such as specialised healthcare.
The crisis could have been contained had there been sustained action and commitment on doing things that are routine work for the authorities: Fumigation, cleaning drains and stagnant water pools, spreading information before the rains set in and ensuring that hospitals are better equipped to tackle any major outbreak.
The dengue crisis in Delhi and NCR is a man-made emergency and one can now only pray that it does not get out of hand in the coming days and that the Delhi government learns a lesson from it.