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Thousands screened in India after Congo fever deaths

In the state of Gujarat, health authorities have begun screening thousands of villagers since a deadly virus killed three people.

A 30 year-old woman and two medical staff treating her have died of Crimean-Congo haemorrhagic fever (also known as ‘Congo fever’ from outbreaks in the Democratic Republic of Congo). This is the first officially-recorded case of the disease in India (though others could have occurred unnoticed) and officials have sprung into action.

Over 16,000 people in the woman’s home village of Kolat, 30 kilometres south west of the state capital Ahmedabad, have been screened for possible symptoms of the disease, which is transmitted by ticks from domestic livestock. Once contracted through contact with blood from an infected animal, Congo fever can then be passed onto other humans through blood or other body fluids. Early symptoms include high fever, vomiting and abdominal pain, but later those infected suffer from large areas of bruising and nosebleeds. An anti-viral medicine is being given to anyone showing signs of the disease, which otherwise kills around a third of people. Since victims usually die in only the second week of illness, Gujarat’s health authorities are keen to find and treat any further cases as quickly as possible.

This quick and efficient response shows India’s healthcare system at its best. But a recent series of papers in ‘The Lancet’ highlight the many problems still inherent in a country with extremely high rates of illness, such as malaria and tuberculosis which account for nearly a third of India’s burden of disease. India also suffers from shockingly high infant and mother mortality rates. In 2008, there were 1.8 million deaths of children below the age of five and nearly 70,000 mothers died. And it is estimated that over 50 million under-fives in India are affected by stunted growth.

In the next two decades, the country will also see a rise in chronic illnesses like heart disease and respiratory ailments, mental disorders and cases of diabetes and cancer. These diseases are expected to account for three-quarters of deaths by 2030 and as yet there is no comprehensive plan to deal with the number of cases which will arise in a population of over 1.1 billion.

When they fall ill, many Indians are unable to afford the best medical services. And though some still opt to pay privately, health bills are thought to drive nearly 40 million people into poverty each year. One of the published reports therefore calls for the introduction of universal healthcare in India by 2020. Authored by a team at the Public Health Foundation of India, it concludes that only by the creation of a national health service can India hope to “ensure the reach and quality of health services to all...and reduce the financial burden of healthcare on individuals”.

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