By Eetika Kapoor
The recent revelation of detection of three Zika virus cases in India by WHO has brought into light the recklessness of the Indian administration. The cases were diagnosed in Gujarat where two pregnant women, one aged 37 years and the other a 22-year-old, along with a 64 year-old man, were reported as victims.
Zika: The lethal virus
The disease is caused by the Aedes mosquito which is also responsible for dengue and chikungunya in India. Due to its mild symptoms, it goes relatively unnoticed. First detected in Uganda in animals, the virus has spread to around 30 countries. According to a study published in Clinical Microbiology Review in 2016, India had already been exposed to the virus back in 1952. The disease can cause microcephaly – a condition causing infants to have abnormally small heads leading to the possibility of various birth defects.
When WHO revealed India’s well-kept secret
On 18th November 2016, WHO declared the Zika virus a non-PHEIC (Public Health Emergencies of International Concern) disease. Reportedly, the first case in India was detected on 16th November, 2016. The Indian administration failed to inform the public, leave alone the municipality and the mayor. The only action taken was the setting up of 25 laboratories in Ahmedabad where the first case was reported. Senior medical officer of ICMR (Indian Council of Medical Research) stepped up surveillance in the city and tested over 50,000 blood samples for analysis.
“The two pregnant mothers have delivered healthy babies and the 64-year-old senior citizen has shown no complications at all.” said J.N. Singh, senior most bureaucrat in Gujarat. The ministry defended its stance saying that it consciously did not go public to prevent panic, as the numbers did not escalate after the surveillance was stepped up in the city. Soumya Swaminathan, director of ICMR claimed, “Even today, we don’t really want people to check for Zika virus every time they have a fever. We have 26 million pregnancies a year in India, and we don’t have the lab capacity to test that many people.”
Commenting on the issue, Dr. Rajib Dasgupta, a professor in the community medicine department at J.N.U. said, “You have to take the community into confidence. You can do it without spreading panic. That is the job of a sound health policy.” As told to The Wire, the NCDC ( National Centre for Disease Control) still has no reports on Zika virus in India even after it was announced by the WHO.
Has India violated international health parameters?
The International Health Regulations (IHR) is a binding agreement that involves 194 countries including India. The country needs to inform the WHO within 24 hours of detection of a disease if the disease has a serious health impact or it entails the risk of international spread or risks travel and trade. None of the victims in India have traveled abroad. Despite that, contrary to the WHO guidelines, India took 6 months to officially inform the organisation. Defending its stance on the issue, the Indian government claimed that since the detection of Zika in India was after the disease was declared non-PHEIC, India was under no obligation by virtue of Annex 2 to IHR.
A similar compromise on government accountability took place when China tried to hide the spread of SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory System) in Southern China, back in 2003. On similar lines, this omission has tarnished India’s international image and has exposed the ill-equipped healthcare sector in India. The IDSP (Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme), a comprehensive database known for its meticulous analysis, failed to detect such a critical disease. Evidently, the security of global health is at stake.
India’s healthcare system in tatters
5.2 million medical errors occur in India annually. The investment in healthcare has recently increased due to the growth of private sector in India. It still amounts to a meagre 5% of total investments where the private sector contributes 4%. While highly functional technology, qualified doctors, good medical protocols are standard treatment guidelines, India severely lacks these in the healthcare scenario.
The lack of medical post graduate seats and small number of medical colleges coupled with a booming population have further stressed the healthcare sector in India. Delay in the taking of preventive measures for diseases which hold epidemic potential, reflects the slackness of the administration. Risking global healthcare, the delay does not allow doctors to be quick with treatment.
Ramifications of the government’s laxity
Dysfunctional health protocols of a country can gravely affect the economy and the potential of the country to deal with international investments. Irregularity and laid-back treatment of threatening diseases overshadows a global image that India is trying to portray. A developing economy like India cannot afford to make mistakes that entail catastrophic consequences. With restricted trade and doubtful circumstances, India will not be considered a serious contender for future global domination.
Featured image credits - Visual Hunt
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