Modi government accused of cover-up in Zika cases

New Delhi—The reporting of Zika virus cases found in Gujarat would have taken the sheen off the Modi government’s three years in office, as it is campaigning for clean and healthy India. The Hindu on Tuesday said not reporting the incidence was a cover up.

“The surveillance system put in place by the Health Ministry succeeded in identifying three adults infected with the Zika virus between November 2016 and February 2017 in Gujarat,” The Hindu said in an editorial. “But the ministry acted less than responsibly by withholding the information from everyone.”

The World Health Organization was informed about the three cases as recently as May 15, more than five months after the first case was laboratory-confirmed.

“Information regarding the cases came to light when the WHO posted the information on its website on May 26. By not disclosing the information in real time, India behaved as China did in the case of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) outbreak in 2003.” China was then widely criticised by the global community for trying to cover up the outbreak — by doing so, the Chinese government was arguably partly responsible for SARS spreading to other countries.

“That none of the three Zika-infected adults or their spouses or relatives had travelled to any country with Zika virus transmission indicates that the virus was transmitted within India,” The Hindu said.

Based on the local circulation of the virus, the WHO has warned that “new cases may occur in the future”, particularly as the Aedes aegypti mosquito that transmits the virus is widely found in India.

Over 34,000 human samples and nearly 13,000 mosquito samples were tested for the presence of the Zika virus, and there was monitoring for cases of microcephaly, a birth defect that has been connected to the mother being Zika-infected while pregnant, The Hindu observed. “But it is not clear whether the person who brought the infection into the country — the index case — has been identified.”

“Secrecy about Zika outbreaks, even if seen only in isolated cases, can lead to a public health disaster. Given that local transmission is already present, the A. aegypti is commonly found, and many infected people exhibit no or only mild, non-specific symptoms, up-to-date health bulletins and advisories are vital.”

India has the responsibility to keep the WHO and the global community informed, The Hindu said, “especially in the case of dreaded infectious diseases, for both global risk assessment and risk preparedness”.

It said the government machinery should have been on overdrive to educate and increase awareness about ways to avoid infection; “the decision to keep the information under wraps to avoid creating ‘panic’ is totally unconvincing,” it said.

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