In all the panic over the swine flu pandemic that has claimed its first victim in India, two crucial facts have got buried. One, that the flu can be cured by a five-day course of medicine; and, two, that people can now go home after giving blood samples for testing. But as always the latest virus has brought in its wake confusion, anger, fear and helplessness. So far, 574 cases of swine flu have been reported in India. This suggests that prompt action can contain it. The government has already designated 18 laboratories for testing and has decided to lift restrictions on private laboratories as long as they can prove they are bio-safe. All this will allay public fears to an extent. But reactions to the swine flu show that our preparedness to deal with medical crises is almost non-existent. Admittedly, it is not easy to deal with a new virus. But the task would have been easier if we had some systems in place that could have been fine-tuned to meet the new threat.
We saw the same knee-jerk reaction after the avian flu and the Sars epidemic. It is no secret that every year brings a cocktail of debilitating viruses, especially in the monsoon season. Among the unwelcome callers are encephalitis, dengue, cholera and a host of gastro-intestinal ailments. Medical advisories are issued, the health system is told to pull up its socks and the government promises to upgrade response systems. But come the next year and we are back to square one. The child who tragically died of swine flu on Monday was treated at a Pune hospital. The government laboratories equipped for testing not just for swine flu but also other viruses are in urban areas. Vaccines are available, once again, in urban areas and predominantly in private facilities. The majority of Indians in rural areas are left to their own devices. This invariably means using some sort of private facility. Such a situation explains why 40 per cent of those who seek medical help in India are pushed into impoverishment.
It is no one’s contention that we can transform our health system overnight. But surely, basic and cheap procedures like proper hygiene in clinics, stocking essential medication and a rudimentary awareness campaign on common communicable diseases are not out of our ken. Given the economic costs of pandemics like the swine flu in these recessionary times, the healthy response would have been to put preventive measures in place. But so far, the prognosis is not encouraging.