The figures on swine flu released by the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme (IDSP) this week should be a cause for concern for the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW). In less than a month this year, the highly contagious virus has infected 4,500 people and claimed 169 lives. Taken together with last year’s figures — about 15,000 infected and 11,000 deaths — IDSP’s data has ominous portents. It could signal a resurgence of the virus that caused a pandemic in 2015. More than 40,000 people were affected by the disease that year, and nearly 3,000 succumbed to it. The virus seemed to have been contained in 2016 with the country reporting less than 300 swine flu deaths. But the latest outbreak should occasion a revaluation of the measures that were adopted after the 2015 pandemic.
The virulent form assumed by swine flu four years ago led the MoHFW to plan a system for early detection and treatment of viral diseases. A network of Viral Research and Diagnostic Laboratories (VRDLs) was envisaged for the purpose. About 80 of the 125 laboratories planned in 2015 are functional. However, a report of the MoHFW’s parliamentary standing committee bares serious shortcomings in the running of these laboratories. The report, tabled in Parliament in March last year, pointed out that they lack state-of-the-art disease diagnostic kits and are also short on manpower. “The inadequacy of specialised laboratories has severely affected the response time in identification of the viruses and quick mobilisation in the event of outbreaks or response to infectious disease outbreaks or epidemics, such as the H1N1 (swine flu) viruses,” the report noted. Moreover, the labs that test swine flu are at the divisional headquarters. This means that patients often have to cover a long distance, and valuable time is lost before the disease gets diagnosed.
The National Health Policy, drawn up in 2017, marked a paradigm shift from the time when government health programmes were geared to deal with infectious diseases. The policy’s focus on non-communicable diseases is understandable given that national and international studies have shown that these ailments now constitute the major share of the country’s disease burden. However, it is also well-known that urbanisation, mass migration, commerce and overcrowding of towns and cities accelerate the spread of viral pandemics, including swine flu. The recent outbreak of the virus should be a reminder to the MoHFW that there is no room for complacency as far as infectious diseases are concerned.