We saw bird flu coming...
Written by The Indian Express   
Saturday, 25 February 2006


We saw bird flu coming...


So why were we so poorly prepared for it?



The irony about the bird flu is that we all saw it coming. But, as usual, when it came to implementation, we did nothing. Consequently, millions of birds are being culled mercilessly even as threat of pandemic continues to loom large. Shockingly, instead of following a time-tested system of eliminating the virus, we are using unacceptable mechanisms in dealing with it. Most of the workers are either not using gloves and protective clothing, masks or lack the training to do the job. In fact, India has not even deemed it necessary to import N95 masks that are absolutely essential to filter the virus.


Unlike in Japan, where poultry was accounted for and farmers compensated, in India many farmers preferred not to report cases of birds dying en-masse. Worse, there were reports of small farmers in Maharashtra shifting their poultry stock to neighbouring states like MP to save them. Clearly, there is a lack of trust in the prevailing machinery that promises compensation but seldom delivers. As for medical aids, we are poorly equipped. A city like Mumbai is understood to have only 20 ventilators in comparison to the many thousands positioned in each city in the US. Ventilators are essential to address respiratory distress in case of an outbreak.

France should be more than willing to provide us with testing kits that it has already deployed successfully to combat the virus in its home ground. Our government should waste no time in ordering these kits, ventilators, N95 masks and other protective gear, so that the damage control regime is quickly put in place. Disaster management is a subject that perhaps only exists in files in our country. Should the pandemic hit India, there is likely to be complete chaos. Neither the hospitals nor the doctors are trained to handle such a crisis. A blueprint, if any, to tackle the emergency is mysteriously shrouded in secrecy at the health ministry. There are indeed no reasons to panic for now, but at the same time we need to be prepared for the worst.

The whole issue brings the focus back on Indian research. Ever since independence, there has been little or no incentive for the pharma industry to invest in basic research. Reverse engineering was considered to be a cheap and effective alternative to time-consuming, costly research. But with India having become IPR compliant, we urgently need to put the R&D house in order.

Beginning with the budget, it is of paramount importance to provide every possible incentive to R&D-based industries so that at least in the future India is better prepared.

The writer is co-chairman of the pharma committee of ASSOCHAM and president, Nicholas Piramal India Ltd
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