Tackle infectious diseases on a war-footing

Tackle infectious diseases on a war-footing

By THE SUNDAY GUARDIAN | 4 November, 2017

Several parts of the country are in the grip of a dengue outbreak. It is not just in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu that dengue is about to reach epidemic proportions, with several deaths reported in the eastern state alone; news of dengue attacks are becoming increasingly common even in the national capital region of Delhi. In fact, some reports state that at least 750 cases of dengue have been reported in Delhi towards the end of October, taking the total count of recorded dengue attacks to around 6,000 in this season. And this when the monsoon is gone, with the mosquito breeding season supposedly over. In Delhi-NCR at least, health experts expect some respite with the onset of winter, but the same is unlikely to be the case in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal, where winters are comparatively warmer. It’s a telling commentary on the poor management of infectious diseases in the country that it is the seasonal changes that help in subsiding such outbreaks, and not human intervention. Worse, every year it is the same story. Not too far back, in 2015, India reported around one lakh cases of confirmed dengue outbreaks and over 220 deaths. The situation has not really improved in these two years. In fact, the numbers this year could be as bad, if the government in Bengal, to give one instance, was not in a state of denial, refusing to acknowledge that dengue has killed several in the state. And it is not just dengue—malaria, chikungunya and swine flu too have had a free run in 2017, even in the country’s showpiece capital and its neighbouring areas.

It is easy to blame such outbreaks on the geographical location of the country—an area where some vector borne diseases spread easily because of contiguity with virus producing countries—or on its warm and wet climate, or on people’s behavioural patterns. At the same time, there is no denying that poor sanitary condition is one of the biggest reasons behind the spread of such infectious diseases. At a time when India claims it has attained superpower status, it is a matter of shame that basic drainage systems are a chimera for many villages and city slums. While cleanliness is a habit, which has to be inculcated by a vast swathe of the Indian population, even the best of intentions are defeated when the infrastructure is not in place. In fact, the situation is perhaps worse in the cities than in the villages. Unplanned growth and municipal apathy make the cities breeding grounds of a range of infectious diseases. Add to this the lack of clean water, and inability of the authorities to ensure the last-mile availability of several vaccines and medicines, and India is perpetually sitting on a powder-keg.

It’s all fine being a democracy and we should be rightly proud of our democratic system, but a situation seems to be arising where democracy has come to be confined to exercising the franchise and winning elections. Surely, democracy also means the right to lead a healthy life in clean surroundings. But piles of garbage and choked drains are so commonplace even in a city such as Delhi, that these have become par-for-the-course for the residents. Delhi’s slums and urban villages are like urban nightmares—the seats of most of the communicable diseases that keep plaguing the region time and again. If the political parties gave as much stress to governing as they gave to winning elections, Delhi’s and the rest of the country’s municipalities would be better placed to prevent the outbreak of such diseases.

Amid this, there are reports that a new variant of the dengue virus has been identified by the scientists of National Institute of Virology. Belonging to an Asian genotype, the virus is believed to have caused dengue epidemics outside India, apart from being responsible for at least two virulent outbreaks in Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the past. The Central and the state governments need to tackle the situation on a war-footing, as else the powder-keg the country is sitting on will explode, sooner than later.

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