Crippling policy

Published : Jul 04, 2008 00:00 IST

The Pasteur Institute of India, Coonoor.-K. ANANTHAN

The Pasteur Institute of India, Coonoor.-K. ANANTHAN

EARLY this year, when three public sector undertakings (PSUs) manufacturing vaccines were forced to suspend production, there were all-round protests. Critics expressed the fear that the governments action would cause acute shortages of vital vaccines, which would badly affect the national immunisation programme, one of the governments most successful programmes in public health (Frontline, April 11).

The fears appear to have come true in less than five months. According to newspaper reports, at least 15 States and most of the Union Territories have started feeling the pinch. Following a severe shortage of vaccines, they are looking up to the Centre for early supplies. The Union government, for its part, is looking up to the private sector to meet the crisis.

Ten States, including Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and West Bengal have told the Centre that they hardly have a months stock of tetanus toxoid (TT) vaccines. Similar is the case with Delhi and some Union Territories. TT is generally administered to pregnant women.

Assam, Bihar, Kerala and West Bengal are among the States that have complained of short supplies of the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT) vaccine. Acute shortage of Bacillus Calmette-Guerin (BCG) vaccine has been reported in Arunachal Pradesh and a few Union Territories. Delhi is reported to have received so far from the Union Health Ministry only 4.5 lakh units of vaccine against its annual need of 21 lakh units. Union Health Minister Anbumani Ramadoss said Ministry officials are working on the logistics of procuring the vaccines and I do not think there will be any problem.

The PSUs, whose manufacturing licences were cancelled, are the Central Research Institute in Himachal Pradesh, the Pasteur Institute of India and the BCG Vaccine Laboratory, both in Tamil Nadu. These undertakings were not asked only to suspend production but also to stop despatch of supplies from the stocks they held and the procurement of raw materials. The action was taken on the grounds that they did not comply with good manufacturing practice (GMP) norms of the World Health Organisation (WHO), under the Indian Drugs and Cosmetics Act.

In the past three decades, these units were supplying nearly 70 per cent of the vaccines required for the countrys immunisation programme at unbelievably low prices.

Critics of the government action had complained that no alternative had been thought of before stopping the production of vital vaccines that played a big role in child health and antenatal care. They were particularly unhappy that the undertakings were given no time to improve their production mode in tune with GMP norms, which could have been done had resources been provided.

Nothing has happened in the past five months to give any hope of revival of production in these three units. The issue was raised in Parliament but nothing much came out of it. In a letter to Anbumani Ramadoss, Rajya Sabha member Brinda Karat pointed out, the quality, potency and safety of the vaccines produced and supplied by the PSUs have never been in question and added that the closure of the units would leave the field open to corporate pharmaceutical companies and multinational companies. Surely this is not in the national interest, she stated.

Brinda Karat said that it was inexplicable that the Health Ministry decided to close down the units instead of upgrading them in a time-bound framework. Anbumani Ramadoss replied that the suspension of production was based on WHO inspection findings and that there was no other go. He said the three units would be developed into testing centres and also used to train employees. He also referred to a state-of-the-art vaccine unit that will come up in Tamil Nadu soon.

Responding to a reference to the issue at zero hour in the Lok Sabha by P. Mohan, Communist Party of India (Marxist) member, the Minister explained in a letter that the units were only asked to suspend production and that the government had not closed them. Mohan told Frontline that Anbumani Ramadoss repeatedly explained why the units were asked to stop production and had no answer to the question, Why the government did not upgrade the units to enhance their standards? This question, raised by many scientists, trade unionists and employees, remains unanswered.

The Ministers remark at a Chennai press meet that an inquiry committee would study the restructuring of the units into testing and training centres and consider whether production could be resumed has given hopes to a section of their workers. Many others are, however, sceptical.

S. Viswanathan
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