122-year-old Epidemic Diseases Act to be replaced with new legislation
The 122-year-old Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897, which granted sweeping powers to town administrators and district collectors under colonial India to control epidemics, is in the process of being revoked.
It is being replaced with the proposed Public Health Act, the draft of which is with the law ministry, according to top officials in the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the National Health Systems Resource Centre (NHSRC).
The officials added that they took up the task of finalising the draft legislation to replace the Epidemic Diseases Act, which is now awaiting approval from the law ministry. Although the Epidemic Diseases Act is more than 100 years old, many states had taken recourse to its various provisions to control the swine flu (2009) pandemic and other outbreaks in recent years.
A research paper in the 2016 edition of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics noted that the Epidemic Diseases Act has major limitations in the current scenario “as it is outdated, merely regulatory and not rights-based, and lacks a focus on people”.
The paper by PS Rakesh, assistant professor, department of community medicine, Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences and Research Centre, noted the Act failed to cover greater migration within states, transition from agrarian to industrial societies, increased urbanisation, increasing intensity of contact with animals and birds and man-made ecological changes.
It placed “too much emphasis on isolation or quarantine measures, but is silent on the other scientific methods of outbreak prevention and control, such as vaccination, surveillance and organised public health response”, Rakesh noted. One of the shortest legislations in the country, the Epidemic Diseases Act evolved under British India in the aftermath of the bubonic plague that broke out in Bombay State in the 1890s.
In December 2017, Lav Agarwal, joint secretary in the ministry of health and family welfare, suggested that a comprehensive legislation be drafted which will include issues relating to epidemics, including measures to handle bio-terrorism, bio-warfare, biological disasters, decontamination and chemical reactions.
“We will have an Act which will include all the aspects related to health, environment, food and road safety because many diseases need multi-disciplinary approach and inter-departmental coordination as in cases of animal-to-human and human-to-animal transmitted diseases,” a top official in the NCDC said.
“The Epidemic Diseases Act is a very crisp and short act; then people travelled through sea ways and often there were chances of contracting infection from other countries. Hence, the act. But now we have new epidemiological techniques to deal with outbreaks, so continuing with the old act makes no sense. Recently, we were successful in containing the Zika virus and hence, revoking the old act and bringing in a new one becomes important,” the official from NCDC said.
The new legislation not only covers many aspects of health, but also mentions ways of quarantining a patient, accountability of departments (be it public or private) and punitive actions in case of failures.