Is India’s medical fraternity ready to tackle the coronavirus outbreak?

The 2019 coronavirus outbreak has been declared a Public Health Emergency by WHO of International Concern (PHEIC). China has been the most affected by the outbreak, with health care professionals working round the clock to contain the spread of the virus and also treat the infected individuals. By far, the deadly disease has claimed around 4032 lives in Italy and 3255 in China. Officially named as Covid-19 by the WHO, coronavirus has affected to182 countries around the world. Italy has surpassed the total number of death cases to China. Death by coronavirus has also been reported in Iran, South Korea, Japan, US, France, Philippines, Australia, Thailand and Taiwan.

Coronavirus is a group of viruses belonging to the subfamily coronavirinae in the family coronaviridae. They affect the respiratory tracts of mammals and birds. Coronavirus can spread via fluids in the respiratory systems such as mucus. When infected individual coughs or sneezes, the droplets disperse in the air and act as a means of transmission of the virus. Also, touching or shaking hands with an affected individual can spread the virus among humans. Wuhan city in China, which was the epicentre of the outbreak, built a makeshift hospital with a 1000 bed capacity in mere 10 days. China also employed artificial intelligence to screen travellers using infrared and face detection technology, which triggers an alarm if an individual’s temperature is above 37.43º C. Now the question arises, is India well equipped to handle such an outbreak?

People are divided on their views in this matter. Some feel medical colleges and hospitals in India lack the infrastructure to handle such a situation, while others think the government should take appropriate measures to tackle it. The Chinese government has employed a heavy-handed response that has been effective in limiting the spread of the virus. The Covid-19 has been declared a PHEIC by the WHO because the virus is spreading to countries with not very well equipped health care systems.

The first reported case of coronavirus in India was on January 30, in Kerala, followed by two more cases over the following weeks. All the cases had a travel history to China. Fortunately, all three cases have recovered from the infection. The Indian government has directed all state-run as well as private hospitals to reserve ICU beds. But since the disease is highly contagious so isolation wards need to be used to house the infected individuals. But in case of a rapid increase in the number of cases, India lacks the resources to quarantine people like China did.

Top medical colleges in India like All Indian Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS), Delhi, and the National Institute of Biological (NIB) are well equipped to take up to 700 cases if the need arises. In Maharashtra, 105 people were quarantined for possible exposure to the virus. Four amongst them were kept under observation while the rest were subsequently discharged as of 1st march.

Two more confirmed cases were reported by the Health Ministry on March 2. One individual from Delhi with a travel history to Italy and another individual in Hyderabad who had travelled to the United Arab Emirates, also an Italian citizen living in Jaipur who was previously tested negative, was later tested positive for the infectious coronavirus, taking the toll of confirmed infected individuals in the country to 250+ on March 21. As many as 80 people who were in contact with the infected person from Hyderabad, including the passengers on the bus he travelled from Bangalore, were tracked down by the government and kept under watch. Two Indians onboard a cruise ship in Japan also got infected. Both of them were crew members on the Diamond Princess cruise ship. They were taken to a Japanese hospital to get treatment along with other infected individuals.

Also, prompt testing of samples is needed which can be done if we have better-equipped virology labs. Out of the 106 virology labs in the country, only 14 are well equipped and meet the requirements to test cases of coronavirus. This includes the National Institute of Virology, Pune. The health personnel should be provided with personal preventive equipment and gears so that they are not infected and can look after the patients without fear.

The Indian government has started screening passengers at 21 airports and has also cancelled all existing visas to people travelling to India from China and other infected countries. Also, people travelling to China from India are quarantined on their return. Travel advisories have been issued advising people to refrain from travelling to China. Thermal screening of passengers arriving from China, Italy, Thailand, Singapore, Japan and South Korea at airports and seaports are done. Also, the collected information about the detailed history of the passengers is shared with state level and district level surveillance officers so that they can be kept under watch for symptoms of the infection, through an integrated disease surveillance program. As many as 2000 flights have been screened till date. People showing early symptoms were kept in isolation at hospitals. Government has also taken measures to ban the export of all kinds of personal protection medical equipment. The manufacturing and exports sector in India has been affected.

Till date, India has successfully contained the spread of the virus in the country by adopting precautions and measures. Coronavirus is most likely to spread among humans during the winter months so hot and humid summers can limit the spread of the virus in India. Since the mercury is gradually on the rise, we can expect that the number of cases of coronavirus will go down in the subsequent days. However, it will be too early to let the guards down anytime soon.

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