Last month, as the country framed medical protocols and mobilised its healthcare infrastructure to confront the COVID-19 pandemic, there were concerns that the needs of patients with other critical diseases could suffer in the process. On April 24, for instance, the Bombay High Court took note of reports on how a single-minded focus on confronting the pandemic had left other seriously ill people in the lurch. Responding to a PIL, the court asked the Maharashtra government and the Centre to “not ignore the needs of non-COVID patients”. Also, in April, this paper reported that states were postponing case-finding campaigns for tuberculosis (TB) because their healthcare systems were overwhelmed with the task of dealing with the pandemic. Now, a report has cited National Health Authority data to show a sharp fall in non-COVID treatment procedures in private and government facilities. This data is particularly worrying because it shows that the lockdown has compromised the Ayushman Bharat Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Yojana’s (PMJAY) ability to reach out to critically ill patients — including those afflicted with cancer — below the poverty line.
In the past 10 years, studies have shone a light on India’s growing non-communicable disease — cardiovascular ailments, cancer, respiratory diseases, diabetes, and mental health conditions. These diseases have added to the country’s already substantial burden of infectious diseases. While the public health infrastructure in most parts of the country is far from adequate to meet the challenges posed by this combination of NCDs and infectious diseases, the particularly poor states struggle the most during serious outbreaks. While containing the surge of COVID-19, these states will also have to be on alert for other contagions which assume menacing proportions during the summer. Authorities in Bihar, for instance, will have to make arrangements for the returning migrants even as they cannot afford to forget that it was about this time, last year, when Muzaffarpur and adjoining districts were gripped by an encephalitis epidemic.
Slowing down other health services while the nation deals with the pandemic could lead to serious public health complications. There are already reports, for instance, that the immunisation drive — against a host of diseases including TB, hepatitis, polio, diphtheria, measles, and rotavirus — has suffered because the community health workers, who drive this programme in the country’s rural areas, have been roped in for COVID-19 surveillance. According to conservative estimates, at least 5 million children have missed out on vaccination. The country has had some success in the battle against the pandemic. Medical authorities would do well to ensure that this record is not marred by failure on other healthcare fronts.
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