Epidemic in the mind

Published: September 2, 2009 - 13:30 Updated: September 2, 2009 - 13:34

Swine flu, yes. But why are we blind about the other annual killers: diarrhoea, malaria, Japanese encephalitis?

Swine flu has been termed as the fastest growing pandemic by WHO. It is active in 168 countries. As the virus entered Indian borders, the media went hysterical. Reporters becam medical practitioners.

As the epidemic enters its fifth month since it was first detected in Mexico, the panic is spreading faster than the disease. The only people making the most of it are the pharmaceutical companies and now, private hospitals. The urban rich for the first time, perhaps, discovered government hospitals which proved overstressed, unhygienic and without basic facilities like water in toilets - totally (under)-unprepared. The health ministry botched up badly despite substantial time and warnings. The private labs reportedly asked Rs 10,000 for a test. And, private hospitals apparently have no isolation halls, and are reluctant to pitch in during the national crisis.

So, why this longing for privatisation of healthcare? What will the Indian medical establishment do in case of an apocalyptic natural calamity, epidemic, accident, disaster, war-like conditions or a terrorist strike? Leave the citizens to die on the streets while the rich and powerful can be cushioned in safe and cocooned comfort zones, like Dick Cheney after 9/11?

As latest reports trickle in, 10,578 persons have been tested so far out of which 2,026 are positive for Influenza A H1N1 (Swine). Till now, 25 persons have died of the disease in India. The reason for death in most cases was late detection of the virus, or compounded/complicated by other long-term ailments. Test reports were delayed. In some fatal cases, it was detected only after the person had already died. In Delhi, out of the 368 positive cases of swine flu, 320 were discharged and two deaths were reported.

Even while the media went berserk on swine flu, it chose to ignore several cerebral malaria deaths in Bihar. TB, malaria, diarrhoea, Japanese encephalitis kill hundreds every year. Even basic medicines such as painkillers, quinine or paracetamol are not available in rural areas, while Coke and Pepsi are sold all over India's interiors. Women suffer gynecological and other forms of pain in silence for years, with no access to basic painkillers or primary healthcare.

The primary health system has collapsed. People rush to cities because the referral systems near their villages, towns and districts have collapsed. The media never bother to report about children dying of diarrhoea because they have no access to clean drinking water. UNICEF reports that diseases such as diarrhoea and pneumonia are preventable with simple measures of healthcare, nutrition and clean drinking water. Still, thousands continue to die.

Lack of post-natal care facilities led to the death of nearly 7 lakh children. Respiratory infections like bronchitis and asthma killed another 17 lakh. WHO reports 7.5 lakh deaths due to cancer, while childhood cluster diseases like measles and diphtheria killed 3 lakh children. TB can't be controlled even now and killed nearly 4 lakh people in 2002. Eastern UP, especially Gorakhpur, is struck every year by Japanese encephalitis, killing hundreds of children, but the nuclear superpower that is India has not discovered a single anticipatory antidote to stop this annual ritual of 'mass murder'.

Swine flu, yes. But why are we blind about the other annual killers: diarrhoea, malaria, Japanese encephalitis?

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