Quantum Leap

Zika outbreak after Nipah: Why our healthcare system wakes up at the eleventh hour

The government should expand the laboratory network with adequate biosafety for rapid diagnosis.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  3-minute read |   23-10-2018
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It was just a few months ago that Nipah outbreak occurred in Kerala, and now we have outbreak of Zika in Rajasthan.

In less than past two years, this is the third outbreak of Zika in India, after the ones that were reported from Ahmedabad in January-February 2017, and Krishnagiri district in Tamil Nadu in July 2017.

In Jaipur over 120 cases of zika virus infection have been reported so far.

The rapid frequency with which outbreaks of emerging and re-emerging infectious agents are occurring in India points to the need of tightening our belts for disease control and surveillance. India has established disease surveillance systems under central agencies like the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) and the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR).

The detection of Zika cases in Jaipur is said to be a result of this robust surveillance system.

However, the success of any disease surveillance mechanism depends on strength of the government health system at the primary level.

We often hear outbreaks of so-called mysterious fevers and even deaths due to them.

zika-inside_102318031409.jpgThe outbreaks of new viruses can also have devastating impacts on the economy. (Photo: Reuters)

Many of the emerging infections cause similar symptoms, often delaying diagnosis or end up in incorrect diagnosis. For instance, symptoms of zika -fever, skin rashes, conjunctivitis, muscle and joint pain and headache — are similar to other viral infections like dengue. Therefore, every incident of undefined fever has to be reported fast, investigated and the cause established for proper response.

Investigating labs need to be equipped with the necessary knowledge and diagnostic kits.

Only a fully functional and responsive health system at primary level onward can ensure this.

The handling of Nipah by Kerala health authorities proves this point.

Once the outbreak was reported, all the contacts of patients were monitored as it became clear that the virus was spreading from human-to-human.

Though the outbreak was confined to only two districts, all neighbouring districts were put under surveillance.

Health authorities used all available channels of communication to spread awareness among community about risks and precautionary measures. Health workers took extra precautions for their own safety after the death of a nurse who got infected from a patient.

Therefore, along with setting up surveillance mechanisms, we need to strengthen primary health system.

States will have to invest more in health.

The government should expand the laboratory network with adequate biosafety for rapid diagnosis.

Agencies like ICMR need to initiate development for diagnostic kits and vaccines, and study outbreaks as every outbreak present a new challenge and is not similar to previous ones.

The central health ministry and state health departments will have to work more closely to make disease control a round-the-year activity.

We live in a highly connected world where infectious agents can travel with ease from one part of the globe to another.

The outbreaks of new viruses can also have devastating impacts on the economy.

Both recent outbreaks have occurred in two of the topmost tourist destinations in India — Kerala and Rajasthan. If not contained with alacrity, these outbreaks could have had led to scare among potential visitors to the two states.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also Read: Why Nipah virus has baffled scientists and experts


Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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