Can Ebola strike India?
Is an overcrowded India with a weak health infrastructure a sitting duck for the kind of Ebola epidemic which has struck four West African countries?
Yes, feel medical experts in both the government and the private sector.
Ebola has so far claimed nearly 1,500 lives in the four affected countries of West Africa - Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.
"I agree that India being a densely populated country with an overburdened health service, the chances of such an infection spreading fast is very real," union Health Secretary Lov Verma told IANS.
Verma, however, said that luckily Ebola was not an air-borne disease and spread only through bodily fluids. Thus, its spread can be contained with adequate steps.
Rajesh Kumar, Consultant Internal Medicine, Paras Hospital,Gurgaon, told IANS: "In India I am sure if there is just one case, it will multiply like anything." He claimed that most doctors in India were not even aware of the symptoms of the disease.
Even the World Health Organisation said that India needs to further strengthen its infection control mechanism and surveillance to prevent an outbreak of Ebola like the one in West Africa.
The real source of the threat for India, according to official sources, are the nearly 45,000 Indians living in the Ebola-hit areas. These include about 300 paramilitary Central Reserve Police Force (CRPF) peacekeeping personnel.
There are about 500 Indians in Guinea, 3,000 in Liberia and 1,200 in Sierra Leone, from where the maximum cases have been reported. Nigeria has a much larger presence of nearly 40,000 Indians.
Satish Koul of the department of Internal Medicine, Columbia Asia Hospital, Gurgaon, said the screening process at all ports of entry into the country by sea and air route has to be very strict.
"All patients coming from these countries should be thoroughly screened and they should be quarantined for 21 days if they have fever," Koul told IANS.
He, however, agreed that India, as compared to the affected West African countries, is very well prepared. "You have to go to these countries to see how people live there in unsanitary conditions."
Said Lov Verma: "The possibility of the virus slipping in cannot be denied, but I think we have done our best. Even WHO has said that the chance of spread through air travel was very less."
According to WHO, Ebola may be contracted by contact with blood or body fluids between an infected animal and humans - and among humans themselves.
Between humans, it spreads through contact with blood, body fluids and the environment of the infected person.
Ebola's symptoms are fever, sore throat, headache and body pain. Nausea and diarrhoea also may occur. About 50 to 90 percent of the people infected with the virus may die.
Since there are no medicines for the virus itself, treatment is mostly supportive and is aimed at preventing further bacterial and fungal infection. There is still no vaccine for this disease.
WHO has said that during an outbreak, those at a higher risk of infection are health workers, family members or others in close contact with infected people and mourners who have direct contact with the bodies of the deceased as part of burial ceremonies.
Health Minister Harsh Vardhan has maintained that the threat is still low, but measures are in place to face the situation if the virus reaches India.
The government has issued advisories to state disease surveillance units for early detection and management of travel-related cases.
Diagnostic facilities have been established at Pune's National Institute of Virology and the National Centre for Disease Control here.
(Sreeparna Chakrabarty can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
(Posted on 24-08-2014)