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Swine flu alert

Murali Krishnan, New DelhiFebruary 9, 2015

More than 200 people in India have died this year due to swine flu. With the deadly virus spreading quickly, the government is now scrambling to cope with the threat.

Indien Schweinegrippe
Image: picture alliance/landov

Swine flu is back to haunt India. In its strongest resurgence since the pandemic of 2009, the influenza type A virus, known as H1N1, has broken out in different parts of India with more than 5,000 people testing positive for the virus, according to various health departments.

The majority of cases and deaths have been reported from the states of Rajasthan, Gujarat, Telangana, and the capital city, New Delhi. Medical teams in these areas are rushing to assess the situation and help manage the cases.

Symptoms of swine flu are similar to those produced by standard seasonal flu - fever, cough, sore throat, body aches and chills. Some people with the virus also experience nausea and diarrhea. The disease originated from pigs, but is now a wholly human disease and is spread by coughing and sneezing.

Indien Schweinegrippe
Medical teams in the affected areas are rushing to assess the situationImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Swine flu first appeared in Mexico in 2009 and rapidly spread around the world. After the pandemic of 2009, the World Health Organization (WHO) and researchers warned of sporadic outbreaks of the H1N1 influenza virus, but the number of cases dwindled in the subsequent years.

More cases

The sudden burst of cases over the past month forced the health ministry to review the swine flu situation in various states and check if medical teams were ready to tackle and defeat an epidemic if it arises.

"With better monitoring, the number of fatalities should decline, but we are not taking chances and have asked all health departments to set up isolation wards in hospitals," A.K. Panda, a secretary in the health ministry, told DW.

In January alone, at least 30 swine flu-related deaths were reported in the southern state of Telangana. Medical experts believe this alarming rise in cases could be caused by the unusual severity of the winter this year. The traditionally tropical state of Telangana is experiencing its coldest winter in two decades with temperatures dipping to the single digits.

"This year the incidence is very high and a lot of people are losing their lives. New cases are being reported every day. This disease is very serious and once it takes on a big dimension, it will be very difficult to contain," said Dr. P. K. Gupta, a physician, who has been treating swine flue patients in New Delhi.

Was India prepared?

However, the large number of deaths and the growing H1N1 positive cases within a short period of time have raised questions as to whether or not Indian healthcare professionals and policymakers were less prepared for the threat this year.

"It is well known fact that influenza outbreaks are more prevalent in the winters but the exact mechanism behind the seasonal nature of this outbreak is unclear. However, some possible explanations are that the virus survives longer in lower temperatures and humidity during winter," Dr. Raj Kumar, a respiratory and critical care specialist, told DW.

All swine flu vaccines in India are imported. Each swine flu shot costs anywhere between seven to 14 euros.

Indien Schweinegrippe
With more than a month of winter ahead, swine flu cases are expected to continue growingImage: picture alliance/AP Photo

Hospitals in affected states have only recently established isolation wards to treat patients. "I think the best way to stop the disease is to do a proper quarantine. Now it is very difficult to diagnose this disease in the initial period when the symptoms are less and the tests in India are quite expensive," Dr. Gupta pointed out.

Health ministry officials say the deadly virus claimed 981 Indian lives in 2009, and killed at least 1,763 in 2010. Though the disease showed a drastic downfall in 2011 when 75 people succumbed to the virus, it started to rise again from the next year with 405 people falling victim to the flu in 2012 and 692 in 2013.

With more than a month of winter ahead, swine flu cases are expected to continue growing and have a big impact on public health.