Is India prepared?

Print edition : November 28, 2014

AS the Ebola virus disease outbreak shows no sign of coming under control and has already taken 5,000 lives in West Africa, India is slowly waking up to the possibility of the risk of transmission of the virus within its borders. A large number of Indians work in many of the affected countries and would be travelling to India during the epidemic.

According to Margaret Chan, Director General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Ebola outbreak is growing rapidly and all nations, including India, need to be on their guard to prevent importing the virus.

India’s response so far has been to screen passengers returning from Ebola-hit countries at airports to check the possibility of them being infected with the disease. Immigration officers have been trained and flight crews sensitised to follow standard operating procedures.

According to the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, 31,610 people have been screened so far, out of whom 67 suspected cases, which are either medium or high risk, have been quarantined. Their blood has been tested for the virus. As many as 3,126 passengers have been put under surveillance across the country and are being tracked by the Integrated Disease Surveillance Programme. Although no Ebola case has been reported in India as yet, the threat remains.

Also, while the National Institute of Virology (NIV), Pune, undertakes testing for the Ebola virus, the National Centre for Disease Control (NCDC) has been given the responsibility of carrying out molecular diagnosis. The NCDC has also earmarked laboratories in Delhi, Dibrugarh, Guwahati, Port Blair, Kolkata, Chennai, Manipal, Lucknow, Agra, Chandigarh, Bangalore, Thiruvananthapuram, Bhubaneswar and Jaipur to support these tests at the regional level.

Sixty-two hospitals have been identified in the States and Union Territories to tackle Ebola. Although health officials say they do not have exact data on the number of beds available to treat suspected patients and do not know whether isolation wards have been set up in these facilities, inspection teams have been sent by the Ministry to assess these shortlisted hospitals and advise those in charge of them on how to set up isolation wards and handle infected persons.

As of now, the Centre has procured 50,000 pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) and disbursed them to the States. State governments have also been advised to procure them according to the guidelines. But it is important that the quality of services currently being provided to suspected cases is supervised and monitored to avoid any mishap.

Low public awareness

Public awareness about Ebola is still low in India since no confirmed case has been reported. People do not pay much heed to the disease. Dr Lalit Dar, Associate Professor, Department of Microbiology, All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), New Delhi, says: “It is important that people themselves act responsibly and report to health systems in case they have any symptoms of the disease. If even a single case is missed, the outbreak can spread across the country, which will have catastrophic consequences.”

To strengthen India’s preparedness, Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) has also stepped in to support the Health Ministry by sharing its experience of treating patients in West Africa. Martin Sloot, the general director of MSF India, says the team has discussed the treatment protocols and the technical guidelines it followed with the NIV; the Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital, New Delhi; and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai.

Mohuya Chaudhuri

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