Should India sell Tamiflu in the open market as swine flue cases continue to rise? No, say experts and health officials, warning it could lead to panic buying, hoarding and even spurious sale of the anti-influenza medicine.
Despite senior health officials not being in favour of it, Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has said such a move is being considered.
Randeep Guleria, head of medicine at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), said: "I don't think it will be a good move (to sell it in the open market)."
He said one must not forget that people have a tendency to misuse the drug and hoard it. "The result will be that those who really need it would not get it," Guleria told IANS.
"Also, people would develop resistance to Tamiflu and it would no longer be effective in the long run," he said.
According to reports, Mexico, which was the first country to report swine flu, found that many people have
Developed resistance to Tamiflu.
India has seen over 700 cases since the first case was detected May 16. On Friday, a record 96 fresh cases were reported. Those who tested positive were mostly children and doctors.
Guleria said, "We should not forget that this endemic is here to stay for some time. Hoarding will also create a shortage of drugs. The government should continue to restrict it. The way it is being currently done is just fine," he said.
At the moment, the government is selling Tamiflu at identified health facilities in the country where treatment of patients is going on.
In the US, Guleria said, the drug is available over the counter but a prescription is needed. "They are kept by chemists. But it is not so easy to get the drug," he added.
Apart from the US, Britain also sells the anti-influenza drugs in the open market, but on prescription.
Guleria said India needs to be careful. "We have seen how people are rushing to get themselves tested. The fear is that there could be panic buying. Fake Tamiflu could start circulating too," he added.
He suggested that the health ministry involve private hospitals that could provide the anti-influenza drugs. "The only thing to keep in mind is that the government should ensure accountability. It should monitor who is using the drugs and that it is not being misused."
S. Chaterjee, senior consultant in the department of internal medicine with Indraprastha Apollo Hospital, said the government should not allow private pharmacists to sell Tamiflu over the counter.
"People will start buying and consuming it without any reason. Tamiflu should only be taken if one tests positive for swine flu, else the body will develop immunity against the medicine," he said.
There have been flipflops from the health ministry on the issue.
When 14-year-old girl Reeda Shaikh died in Pune of swine flu Aug 3, union health secretary Naresh Dayal said th government would consider selling Tamiflu in the open market. The next day, Vineet Chawdhry, joint secretary in the ministry of health, denied any plans to allow its sale over the counter.
But Dayal Friday made it clear they were not considering it. "The supply of Tamiflu will be controlled by the government and as of now there are no plans to sell it over the counter," he said.
"In India, people have a different kind of behaviour and are used to popping pills...We discussed the issue with medical experts and they suggested it is risky to allow the private sale of Tamiflu as people will start taking it without showing any swine flu symptoms and would develop immunity to the vaccine," Dayal said.
But Health Minister Azad said in the Rajya Sabha Friday: "In two to three days, we will review the sale of Tamiflu in the open market. If necessary, we will do so. That will be done as and when required."