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Swine Flu deaths despite availability of vaccine

We perhaps need to ask, why is it that for a disease like swine flu, we have people dying in the country today?

E. Kumar Sharma        Last Updated: February 9, 2015  | 16:38 IST

Associate editor E Kumar Sharma
Last month, the Serum Institute of India destroyed 184,000 doses of the H1N1 (swine flu) vaccine. Reason: there was neither demand from the market nor from the state governments. With no offtake of the stock and given that vaccines have a limited shelf life, the stock expired and had to be destroyed, an official at the leading vaccine maker from Pune pointed out.

This incident points to a sharp contrast in India. On one hand, we like to talk of taking steps in advance to prevent diseases like Ebola from entering India and in investing into making a vaccine to treat these ailments. And on the other hand, we have a situation where people are dying because of swine flu - an ailment where a vaccine is available for its prevention.

Therefore, we perhaps need to ask, why is it that for a disease like swine flu, we have people dying in the country today? Industry estimates that the deaths across states - largely Telangana, Rajasthan and Gujarat - where cases have been reported today would be close to 300 and that there would be demand for around 5 to 6 million doses in the country.

Apparently, many of them have died despite the physicians and the government being aware of a vaccine to prevent this, and the fact that there are different companies making the vaccine. Serum is not the only company making this vaccine. In March 2010, Panacea Biotec announced it would supply the indigenously produced Pandyflu vaccine for the H1N1 virus. The health and family welfare ministry had then entered into an agreement with Panacea Biotec, among others, for the vaccine.

But any incident where vaccines are to be destroyed for lack of demand and, at the same time, there are deaths because of the same ailment, raises worrying questions. One, on the way the health policy of the country is being executed. And two, it points to the deficiencies in the delivery of health services in the country. A healthcare expert best described this as arguably a basic primary healthcare deficit situation.

When contacted, the office of the Drug Controller General of India said it has approved the vaccine for H1N1 and that given the importance of the disease, the DCGI would extend all regulatory support on safety, security and efficacy of the drug to any state government or any entity that needed help. However, it has no role in making these drugs available and this is being handled by other agencies and state governments.

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