Quantum Leap

By being dishonest about Zika outbreak, government put India at risk

Good public health management demands transparency at all levels.

 |  Quantum Leap  |  3-minute read |   06-06-2017
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Viruses and bacteria do not respect national boundaries, diplomatic relations or commercial interests like tourism and trade. Viruses thrive and multiply wherever they find a perfect host and travel freely with their hosts across continents.

That’s why discovery of a new disease-causing virus in one part of the world is a potential threat to countries all over.

In today’s highly mobile and inter-connected world, it is a fallacy on the part of governments and health ministries to think that disease outbreaks and infections with new viruses — or information about them — could be kept under wraps.

In global public health scenario, information is as important an input as detection and treatment when it comes to disease control. Timely and correct communication of information can save lives. In the case of detection Zika in Gujarat, our health agencies seem to have ignored this reality.

Following the disclosure by the World Health Organisation (WHO) about first Zika cases in  India, the health ministry has issued a statement — its first since the investigation into suspected cases began “during post-monsoon period” in 2016. Even this statement is selective in providing information. It only says that the first case was “further confirmed” on January 3, 2017, without giving the date when it first tested positive. The statement says two more cases were confirmed subsequently, without revealing the dates of confirmation.

Then the ministry says the presence of Zika in Gujarat was reported as part of an answer in Parliament on March 17. The WHO was notified of the case on May 15.

zika_060617022727.jpgHealth minister JP Nadda must ensure greater transparency in the functioning of his ministry. [Photo: Mail Today]

The above sequence makes it clear that there was no attempt to share the information about Zika with public at any stage. The case would have remained a secret if no question was asked about it in Parliament. If the ministry was interested in sharing the information, it should have made suo motu statement on Zika and not waited for a question.

As regards delay in communication of information, the ministry says, “Since WHO had already withdrawn the notification of Zika virus disease as a public health emergency, the case was handled as per our existing protocol.” Does this mean that as per “our protocol” information need not be shared voluntarily?

Another instance of secrecy relates to reported appointment of an American consulting firm, John Snow Inc, to manage the ministry’s essential immunisation unit, which in first place, is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Earlier technical support for this unit came from the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI).

We will perhaps learn about the health ministry’s logic only when it decides to reveal it but replacing an Indian non-profit body with a Boston-based consulting firm appears highly strange on the face of it. If PHFI’s licence to get foreign funds was suspended on the grounds that India does not need foreign funding, how come John Snow is replacing PHFI?

It is time we realise that credible public health management demands transparency at all levels, be it Zika or immunisation.

(Courtesy: Mail Today)

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Dinesh C Sharma Dinesh C Sharma @dineshcsharma

Journalist, columnist and author based in New Delhi.

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