The arrival of swine flu in India has caused panic in some areas, led to concern about the ability of the country’s health system to cope and even disrupted Bollywood.
Public concern about the spread of the A(H1N1) virus has mounted since the death last Monday of a 14-year-old girl in the western city of Pune, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) from the country’s financial capital Mumbai.
As of Tuesday evening, eight other people who were confirmed to have the virus have since died, four of them in Pune, while more than 1,000 people have tested positive, the health ministry said.
But there were appeals for calm as green surgical face masks become a more common sight, including in the crowd at the World Badminton Championships in Hyderabad where a Malaysia coach has been tested for the virus.
India’s Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad has stressed that swine flu should be put in the context of other health risks in the country.
“It is not the only virus we have in our country. We have much more fatal diseases, much more costly diseases,” he told reporters in Delhi on Monday.
With most confirmed cases so far among people who have returned from overseas, tens of thousands of travellers arriving at India’s 22 international airports from affected countries have been screened.
A 24-hour helpline and website have been set up, public hospitals have been given responsibility for testing, isolation and management of suspected cases and 100,000 doses of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu have been sent to affected cities.
Jairaj Thanekar, executive health officer for the municipal authority in Mumbai, blamed the media for fuelling fears.
India’s fiercely competitive cable news channels have devoted hours of airtime to the virus daily, frequently featuring reporters wearing masks stood in front of long lines of people waiting outside hospitals.
“The situation is bad as far as the media is concerned… The media likes to exaggerate as there is no other news. People should not panic,” Thanekar told AFP.
In a sign of the disruption, however, top Bollywood film director Karan Johar cancelled a planned shoot for his next movie in Pune, where a cluster of A(H1N1) cases has seen schools, cinemas and shopping malls shut.
There have also been reports of cancellations in the leisure and tourism sector.
As many public hospitals are overwhelmed with worried people, the parents of the country’s first victim accused doctors of criminal negligence and demanded 50 million rupees (one million dollars) in compensation for alleged delays and mistakes in her treatment.
Meanwhile, at least three states, including Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, and Delhi, have invoked emergency powers to force anyone showing symptoms of swine flu to be tested for the virus.
The World Health Organization said on Tuesday that nearly 1,150 people had died since swine flu first emerged in Mexico and the United States in April, while there were more than 177,000 confirmed infections.
That compares with 250,000 to 500,000 deaths and between three million to five million cases of severe illness from seasonal flu each year.
Dr Saradha Suresh, a paediatrician and member of the Indian Clinical Epidemiology Network, said in that context, Indians’ fears were exaggerated.
“Mortality is only one to two percent, maybe increasing later… If you’re looking at tuberculosis and malaria, we have more deaths than swine flu,” she told AFP from the southern city of Chennai.
“But swine flu creates a panic because it’s unknown. If you’re looking at it from an epidemiological point of view, the fatalities are not that bad.”
Some 8,000 to 9,000 people are likely to catch the virus in the coming weeks through secondary contact with carriers, she added.
“The good news is that most will not be seriously ill. Five percent of people, especially those with other illnesses like asthma, are more at risk,” she said.