With more people falling prey to the swine flu virus H1N1 in the past six weeks than has happened with previous flu pandemics over as long as six months, the World Heath Organisation (WHO) has done well to formally declare it the “planet’s fastest moving pandemic”; such a warning was badly needed to alert countries to the looming peril. Since everyone is immunologically vulnerable to this virus strain, WHO reckons that a staggering two billion people (30 per cent of the world’s population!) may get affected in the next two years. That may sound like going over the top but, beginning in Mexico a few months ago, the H1N1 virus has already affected over 1.3 million people — these are confirmed cases, the actual number may be far higher — in about 160 countries, including India. Though H1N1 is believed to be a mild and usually non-fatal virus, it has killed over 800 people. That is twice as many as the number killed by the bird flu infection H5N1 since its first outbreak in 2003. Moreover, unlike the bird flu virus, which could jump from birds to humans but not from human to human, the H1N1 swine flu virus is communicable from one person to another and has a high transmissibility rate as well. The real worry is that this virus may be a re-assorted form of the human, swine and avian flu viruses, and can further mutate into new, wholly unpredictable forms which may be more dangerous.
In India, the confirmed cases of H1N1 have crossed the 500 mark. The actual number may be more as people generally feel shy of reporting to the authorities for fear of hospitalisation and isolation. Now that cases of H1N1 have begun to surface in schools, the situation has turned all the more disquieting. For, the affected students often intermingle with other children in their schools and outside before being spotted out and testing positive. It therefore seems only a matter of time before the country begins to witness large-scale community clusters of infection, and that would be disastrous. The conditions in the beginning of winter would be idle for the rapid multiplication of this scourge.
Unfortunately, the country does not seem to be prepared for the worst. Though the government claims to have built an inventory of anti-flu drugs like Tamiflu, this may prove inadequate when a real emergency arises, requiring at least 3.5 million health workers, apart from the affected people, to be vaccinated. Tamiflu is not allowed to be sold by chemists and is available to the public only at hospitals designated for treating and quarantining H1N1 cases. A few Indian companies have been given the licence to develop and manufacture anti-H1N1 vaccines from the seed strains made available by the WHO, but they will take time to get under way as they will have to go through a series of tests and trials of the new formulations before they get formal approval. The only silver lining here is that WHO, treating swine flu as a special case, is working out a new set of guidelines for approval (read: fast-track approval) of anti-H1N1 drugs and vaccines, and India can follow those rather than its own. But the urgent need is to prevent lapses in the monitoring of in-coming passengers at the international airports. Most fresh cases of H1N1 are still found to be of those who have returned from abroad and their kin.