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Sudden emergence of infectious diseases big worry for India

LiveMint logoLiveMint 02-08-2017 Neetu Chandra Sharma

New Delhi: India is confronting a sudden emergence of a range of infectious diseases such as dengue, chikungunya, swine flu and malaria that pose a formidable public health challenge.

Nearly 3,000 people died from swine flu disease (H1N1) in 2015. The number of fatalities fell drastically to 265 in 2016, but it had once again risen to 600 until 9 July this year.

While fatalities more than doubled between 2016 and 2017 until 9 July, the number of reported cases rose seven-fold. Already this year, 12,460 swine flu cases have been registered, marking a dramatic escalation from 2016, when the figure for the entire year was 1,786. Maharashtra accounts for almost half of all swine flu deaths this year—until 9 July, the state had recorded 284 deaths and 2,324 cases, health minister J. P. Nadda informed the Rajya Sabha on Tuesday.

Gujarat recorded 75 deaths out of 289 who contracted the disease in the state, while in Kerala 63 out of 1,127 people succumbed to swine flu. In Rajasthan, 59 people died out of 407 reported cases. Karnataka had 15 deaths out of 2,377 cases, while Telangana and Tamil Nadu registered 17 and 15 deaths out of 1,443 and 2,896 cases, respectively.

Health experts blame the sudden outbreak on changing environment, movement of people, increased reporting and changes in the vectors and their biology. “Viruses have a tendency to mutate, bacteria gradually become resistant to antibiotics and vectors find easy hosts with time. Flu and dengue were present earlier also but now there are more surveillance and diagnostic facilities, so now we report and realize the burden,” said Shobha Broor, an infectious diseases expert and microbiologist, formerly with the All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS).

“Environmental changes, construction, overcrowding of cities and urbanization are major factors for this abrupt emergence of diseases,” she added.

Similarly, 22 people have died of dengue so far this year, while as many as 20,664 cases of the vector-borne disease were reported in what is just the start of the monsoon season. Last year, 245 people died from dengue, out of 129,166 cases. In addition, there were 64,057 cases of chikungunya last year. India has also recorded at least four cases of Zika, a new disease for the country, so far.

Despite several efforts by the government, malaria is yet to be contained. There were 1,090,724 cases of malaria and 331 deaths from it in 2016. This year, there have been 267,466 cases until May.

Plasmodium falciparum, the mosquito-borne parasite that causes malaria, mutates to develop resistance against drugs, forcing health authorities to switch from prescribing chloroquine in the 2000s to an Artemisinin-based combination therapy, said Neena Valecha, director, National Institute of Malaria Research (NIMR).

India has also been struggling to develop a vaccine for dengue and chikungunya.

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