With the swine flu toll crossing 1,730 in the country including two deaths each in Assam and Manipur, there are understandable jitters in the NE states. Cases of H1N1 virus infection have been reported from galand and Mizoram as well. In Assam, 12 swine flu cases have been reported from Jorhat, Dibrugarh, Guwahati and Tezpur so far. Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has directed the Health and Family Welfare department to work on a mission mode to contain the spread of H1N1 virus. Maybe the Chief Minister needed to make his government heard about this public health threat, given Health minister zrul Islam’s penchant for making defeatist comments during crises in the past. It will take quite an effort to put the State Health department on its toes, for it had been rudderless for more than two years thanks to the full-blown dissidence in the Congress government. There is now much alarm over swine flu, for Assam did badly in tackling Japanese Encephalitis (JE) last year. Of the 761 persons in the State who contracted this disease in 2014, sadly 165 succumbed — the highest in the country. Figures given out by the Central Health and Family Welfare ministry also reveal that 11 persons in the State died of malaria last year, out of a total 14,536 persons infected. There were no fatalities due to dengue, but that disease too made its presence felt in Assam. All these infectious and vector-borne diseases have been visiting Assam again and again, and fears are that swine flu may be added to that dreaded list in the coming years.
While calling upon the people of Assam not to panic, the State Health minister recently said that only people with health complications like cancer, AIDS, high diabetes as well as heart, lung or kidney ailment are at risk from swine flu. But the news coming from Maharashtra, where swine flu has claimed nearly 300 lives, has health experts worrying over the trend that 35 per cent of the patients who died there did not have any secondary disease like diabetes or hypertension. Rather they are thought to have had hyper active immune systems, which reacted fiercely to the virus, thereby resulting in a fatal condition. Overall, Prime Minister rendra Modi’s home state Gujarat continues to be the worst affected by swine flu, followed by Rajasthan, Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh, though reports of H1N1 deaths are coming in from states all over the country. Clearly swine flu is spreading fast, with some experts attributing the long winter and unusual humidity levels to be the main reasons why the seasol virus is spreading fast this year. Reports from swine-flu hit states suggest that idequate testing facilities, limited availability of Tamiflu medicine and failure to rope in private hospitals are the main reasons why the respective state governments have so far failed to check the spread of the contagious disease. Most of these states also have better health infrastructure than Assam, so Dispur should have no reason for complacence. The abysmal condition of government health service in rural and particularly border areas in the State, is too well known for comfort.
In Assam, the only authorised center to carry out swine flu tests at present is the Regiol Medical Research Centre at Lahowal. The State Health department has assured that sufficient stock of persol protective equipment and H1N1 diagnostic facilities are available at Gauhati Medical College and Hospital, while all medical colleges, district hospitals and private hospitals across the State have been asked to be prepared to tackle any rush of patients, if the situation so arises. The Drugs Controller has been directed to ensure that pharmacies with schedule X licence keep adequate stocks of Tamiflu tablets. But already a flourishing black market seems to have sprung overnight in some towns where triple layer masks and N-95 masks are being sold at exorbitant rates to gullible people. Surely, the most effective preventive measure is to make the public aware of the disease, what precautions to take, what symptoms to watch out for, where to go straightaway for timely treatment. The State government claims to be carrying out an awareness drive by using various communication media. But is the message spreading to the villages and remote, border areas? How is this awareness drive different in urgency and effectiveness compared to the earlier drives about killer diseases like Japanese Encephalitis and malaria? These are some questions people would like to pose to the State Health department, whose record has not been encouraging. In fact, the JE vaccine programme for children could not be completed last year. With the Health department now assuring that the programme will be completed this year, there are further worries that the adult vaccition programme in 16 to 19 districts has been dangerously delayed. If such is the waffling response to JE, one can only fear what awaits the State if the swine flu contagion gets out of hand here. There is intense debate among health experts that the H1N1 virus may have already mutated to a more virulent and contagious form. However, this view is contested by the tiol Institute of Virology, and the Central government has stated in Parliament that the virus continues to remain stable, and therefore can be neutralised by existing treatment. But the fears remain, so the people need to know for sure how prepared the State government really is to tackle this threat.