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Is India prepared to deal with Ebola?

The first Ebola fatality in the US has heightened anxiety across the world with many even in India wondering about preparedness to deal with the deadly virus. Even as India featured among the top five financial contributors to the United Nations Ebola response with a contribution of $ 12.5 million, the awareness and readiness to deal with the disease may not be enough.

Health experts are concerned in the absence of proper screening machinery, inadequate detection centres and a severe lack of awareness among public may lead to serious situation.

Ebola is a disease caused by one of five virus strains found mostly in African countries. Symptoms of the disease include fever, sore throat, muscle pain, and headaches. In most cases it is followed by vomiting, diarrhea, and rash along with decreased function of the liver and kidneys.

Experts say presently there is no cure or vaccine against it. The largest Ebola outbreak in history is currently whirling out of control in West Africa.

In India, the health ministry and the World Health Organisation (WHO) are working together to formulate a preparedness plan in case there is an outbreak of the disease here. The health ministry has also issued warning at the Indira Gandhi International (IGI) Airport and Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport as passengers from various affected countries are entering India. Health minister Harsh Vardhan on August 8, 2014 informed Parliament that there are close to 45,000 Indians in the affected countries.The government is also monitoring some other entry points to the country.

Though so far no patient has been detected in India with Ebola virus, in a densely populated country like India one single imported case can create havoc.

While officials at WHO have applauded health ministry’s proactive approach in dealing with the disease, many senior doctors in various hospitals as well as health workers across the country raised doubts on the quality of screening. According to a senior official at Delhi Medical Council, the preparedness is not adequate and screening needs to be tightened at airports.

Besides, even leading private diagnostic centres, such as Dr Lal Pathlabs and SRL Diagnostics, lack testing facilities for Ebola virus. Only two government laboratories – National Institute for Communicable Diseases in New Delhi and National Institute of Virology (NIV) in Pune are capable of testing patients suspected of Ebola.

Officials at All India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) and Ram Manohar Lohia (RML) Hospital said there are no advisories issued by health ministry so far. “We have our own protocols. The government should issue separate advisories but we have not received anything so far. They are screening passengers from affected countries at the airport and those that are sent to us are being tested,” a senior consultant at RML said. He added, the hospital has sent samples of one patient for testing on Thursday.

Sources said while some of the leading government hospitals like AIIMS and RML Hospital have separate arrangements and wards to keep patients detected with Ebola, private hospitals do not have any instructions or preparedness to tackle an outbreak.

Ebola is a communicable disease and spreads by direct contact with an Ebola patient’s blood or other bodily fluids like urine, saliva, and sweat. The highest concentration of virus is thought to be in blood, vomit and diarrhea. Experts say people can also get the disease by eating infected bushmeat because Ebola can sicken animals including bats, chimpanzees and antelopes.

According to WHO, in 1976, the disease first appeared in two simultaneous outbreaks in Sudan and Democratic Republic of Congo. Until December 2013, a total of 23 outbreaks recorded 2,388 human cases and 1,590 deaths.

The current outbreak began in Guinea in late 2013 and spread to neighbouring countries, but it is still unknown how the 2014 outbreak in West Africa started where four countries -Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria have been affected.

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