We are reeling under a surfeit of breaking news and scientific expert opinions about the swine flu pandemic. However, we need to remain focused and evaluate the statistics. The World Health Organization (WHO) says that there are approximately 1.2 million cases worldwide and around 1,000 deaths. In India, the fatalities are still in the double digits.
In contrast, tuberculosis (TB) causes 4,00,000 deaths in India annually. In fact, it is the leading cause of death in the economically productive 15 to 45 age group. However, TB can be easily diagnosed and cured with proper medication.
Around 450 out of 1,00,000 healthy young women die during childbirth. This is in contrast to China where the figure has fallen to 50. The WHO report states that the problem is magnified because the poor get inadequate care, while the rich demand and pay for caesarians and other non essential interventions.
Nineteen-year-old Saina Nehwal made headlines when she developed chicken pox a couple of weeks before the August 10 world badminton finals. She is part of the 95 per cent of the world population that develops chicken pox at some time in the course of their lives. It is an extremely contagious infection which is not taken seriously, as it usually results in innocuous disease. It can, however, turn dangerous and cause complications like brain fever, blindness, pneumonia and sterility in 10 per cent of those affected. If it occurs in childhood, it usually passes off with about a months absence from school. But if it occurs at a crucial stage in life like during your college finals or a public exam, it can cause much misery. The fact is such harassment is totally avoidable. The disease is preventable with a single dose of Varicella vaccine, which has to be administered after the age of one.
Pneumococcal disease causes pneumonia, brain fever, ear infection, sinusitis and bronchitis. The infection is common and results in 1.6 million deaths every year. Of this, one million are children. The death toll can be eliminated with timely immunisation in childhood. Infective jaundice because of hepatitis A and B can also be prevented with immunisation. Hepatitis A is considered harmless and exposure inevitable in India. Although the number of fatalities is negligible, it causes morbidity, with a feeling of weakness, lack of energy and ill health that persists for months. Hepatitis B is more dangerous. It can result in liver damage, chronic disease, cancer and even death. Again, both infections are preventable with immunisation.
Rubella or German measles is another disease that is preventable through vaccination. If acquired during pregnancy, the affliction can result in a stillbirth or a mentally retarded child with multiple defects requiring a lifetime of care. There are more vaccine preventable diseases such as measles, brain fever (caused by H. Influenzae or the meningococcal bacteria), typhoid, rotor virus diarrhoea, polio and even cervical cancer (caused by the Human Papillovirus infection).
Why then are we so focused on the swine flu epidemic? Flu has been around for centuries. Confirmed pandemics have been occurring with devastating regularity after 1918. The viruses responsible have a reservoir in birds and animals from where they mutate and transmigrate into humans. Since pigs share many genes with humans, the transition is this particular pandemic is very efficient. The rapid spread of the virus is helped by the lack of sunshine during the monsoon and in winter. It cannot survive long when exposed to our tropical sun, so in India the pandemic may be time bound.
It is difficult to differentiate the symptoms of regular flu from that of swine flu. Both start with fever, body ache, headache, sore throat, nasal stuffiness and cough. There may be diarrhoea or vomiting. The symptoms are more severe with swine flu. Most healthy people recover spontaneously from either. Those at risk are children under five, old people above 65, pregnant women and those with underlying medical conditions such as cancer, diabetes or heart disease.
Vaccines are available, but they have to be upgraded and restructured each time there is a new epidemic, as the genetic nature of the virus changes. The WHO anticipates that a vaccine to protect us against this pandemic will be available by October or November. But will there be enough vaccine to cover the entire world (or even Indian) population at risk?
The diagnosis is confirmed by tests done on nasal and throat swabs or nasal aspirates. Blood tests can be done but they take five days and involve taking two different samples. Treatment too is available in government hospitals. The drug Tamiflu (oseltamivir) is administered once diagnosis is confirmed.
The likelihood of infection is reduced by:
• Washing hands with soap several times a day, especially after handling money
• Cleaning surfaces like doorknobs with disinfectant
• Using a face mask
• Covering the face while coughing or sneezing
• Not spitting.
Dr Gita Mathai is a paediatrician with a family practice at Vellore. Questions on health issues may be emailed to her at email@example.com