The crisis of Ebola

Ebola might be at the furthermost corner of our minds but how well prepared are we if it becomes an immediate threat? G. Singh explores …

The deadly Ebola has  snuffed out several hundreds of lives in West Africa and the neighbouring countries of Liberia and Sierra Leone. Even if India is yet to register the first Ebola case, health experts in the state fear that the disease may cause utter havoc if it sneaks its way into the country . The state government claims to have taken all necessary precautions to handle the disease whose recent outbreak is considered to be the deadliest in history since the first case was registered among villagers in Zaire, now the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1976.

Reality however narrates a different story.

“We are not prepared at all. It is impossible to imagine the consequences if Ebola comes to India. The state government claims to have done its job by isolating beds and purchasing Ebola kits, but the spread would be uncontrollable” commented a senior health official at Swasthya Bhawan, the health headquarters in West Bengal. “One of the most dangerous aspects of Ebola is that the dead can make you affected because of the spread of the disease through body fluids,” he added.

His claims are corroborated by the fact that nearly two thirds of the cases of Ebola infections in Guinea during the 2014 outbreak are believed to have been contracted via unprotected contact with infected corpses during certain Guinean burial rituals.

The callousness starts right from the Dum Dum airport which does not have a separate quarantine facility like the US where a volunteer nurse was put under quarantine at New York airport when she returned from Ebola -plagued Sierra Leone.

Officials at Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose International Airport said that they have been instructed to screen people arriving from the Gulf countries and send those having history of being exposed to Ebola patients, to Beliaghata Infectious Disease (ID) hospital, which is a 12 kilometers drive from the airport. Doctors at the ID hospital undercut the claims of proper arrangements and highlighted the glaring loopholes. They revealed that the suspected cases are sent usually by taxis and not in separate ambulances from the airport. “It is mandatory to have a special ambulance strictly for Ebola patients as the virus is contagious in nature. The taxi driver or the fellow passenger is also at the risk of contracting the ailment and this might trigger a dangerous cycle which could soon become unstoppable,” said a senior airport official.

Though a separate room has been prepared for the patients at Beliaghata ID, it is devoid of any necessary precautions. The isolation ward should also airlock, sealed room and a pan sanitiser but none are available. Several health officials warned that the present flaccid administration reminds one of the AIDS fiasco . “During the initial years, people and even the health staff were hardly aware of the disease when it entered the country but the ignorance proved to be life-taking. It took time for the government to undertake several measures for its control,” rued Dr Sajal Biswas, of Service Doctors Forum.

“Everybody was under a notion that they cannot contract HIV, but they were proven wrong. It soon began to claim its victims leaving the government clueless. But Ebola is more dangerous than HIV because the route of transmission for the former is also through body fluids, beside sexual intercourse and contaminated needles and syringes. The disease also spreads through the body fluids of dead animals and people here are into butchery or skinning of animals.”

The government succeeded in controlling Sexually Transmitted Diseases (STD) to some extent by creating awareness, but in the case of Ebola it would take more time to train the officials and then send them to the affected areas. The absence of any practical knowledge would make things more difficult. Moreover, health-care workers treating those who are infected are at great risk of getting infected themselves. 

In West Bengal, the situation is worse in districts and rural areas where the change of regime has failed to bring any noticeable impact in the health services that remain in tatters. Even for minor surgeries or ailments, people from remote areas have no alternative but to trudge through the potholed roads to reach the health facilities risking their lives. Dr Debasish Roy, the Chief Medical Officer of Health (CMOH) of Howrah said that two beds have been isolated in the Howrah district hospital for patients with Ebola.

A visit to the Howrah hospital exposed the truth behind his claims.There were no separate beds as claimed by him and moreover, the medical superintendent was clueless and tried to cover up the matter, “We have already held a meeting with the district health officials about the ways to tackle the disease. I am sure that the CMOH has some plans in his mind,” said Dr N. Chattopadhyay, the medical superintendent promising to get back after receiving ‘proper’ information.

If there were any doubts left regarding the flaccid attitude of the state government, they were cleared after visiting Satyabala ID in Howrah, the second and the only Infectious Disease hospital in the state after Beliaghata. The health facility, situated at a distance of around five kilometers from Howrah station can aptly be described as a disgrace to health facilities. The hospital which could have been a backbone for the people in the surrounding districts is in utter shambles.The campus is surrounded by wild shrubs and a dirty pond with pigs rolling in the mud. The indifference of the administration has provided an ideal place to the cattle grazers to tie their animals with bamboo poles hooked on the ground.  The unhygienic condition in the campus makes it a perfect breeding ground for diseases. Evidence indicates that both domestic dogs and pigs can also be infected with Ebola virus.

The road leading to the hospital is partially illuminated and turns into a den of criminals after the sunset.  The miscreants booze openly and often enter into a quarrel. Criminal activities are rampant in the campus and a person was found murdered in the ID campus, a few months back.The health center is crippled with shortage of doctors and lack of infrastructure. In the rainy season, the hospital ward has knee-deep water while the water reaches to the level of the pond and covers it completely making it dangerous for the first-time visitors who may slip into the water body thinking it to be a throughway. The condition is at a time when the health ministry is being headed by the Chief Minister who had promised to make the government health facilities at par with their private counterparts so that poor can get better treatment.

Besides pointing out the lackadaisical attitude of the government, Mr. Anupam Banerjee highlighted a major difficulty in identifying Ebola patients, “The primary symptoms are similar to dengue or malaria. As the doctors have never witnessed such diseases, it would be extremely difficult to identify Ebola patients.”

The Director of Health Services (DHS) Dr BR Satpathy attempts to silence the rumours,“We have already arranged the special kits to be worn by the health staff while treating the Ebola patients. District officials have been asked to spread awareness and report to the authorities even on minor suspicion.”

G. Singh is a journalist who writes for different newspapers and magazines.

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