Responses to Disease Outbreak: A Perspective from India

Monalisa Joshi
March 05, 2008

The threat of emerging infectious diseases is a product of the globalisation process. Changing lifestyles, patterns of behaviour and several such complex factors have led to the emergence and spread of disease in India. The outbreak of diseases like SARS, Japanese encephalitis, dengue, chikungunya, malaria and bird flu, etc., in recent times, have critically influenced human lives in India. Added to this, is the spectre of biological terrorism. This can potentially make a state vulnerable to threats. A deliberate or a natural outbreak of disease would force the target state to mobilize the government machinery, human and financial resources while combating the disease.

The recent outbreak of diseases in India has brought to light deficiencies that exist regarding disease preparedness, prevention and lifestyle in India. These deficiencies can be addressed through responses located at two levels, one at the level of the state and the other at the level of the individual.

It is important that measures are in place to provide enough information about the outbreak of disease. A bottoms-up approach ensuring easy flow of information from local levels to decision-making centres would result in quick action and restrain the further spread of the disease. Linked with the imperative for information-action plan is the need to provide adequate infrastructure for studies on virus biology and mosquito prevention. Enhancing domestic infrastructure alone can ensure that the information collected is put to efficient use. Personally, leading a life that is in harmony with nature would enhance the natural immunity of people and can significantly reduce the costs of disease preparedness in India.

Given the structure of public health system in India both the western and the alternative medicinal systems have their separate spheres of influence. However, the alternate system though complementary to its western counterpart, is underutilized in India. At the present, alternative medicinal systems are not well equipped to study and further research on emerging and new diseases and provide drugs or therapies adequately. Further investment of human and monetary resources would equip the alternative medicinal systems to discover innovative drugs in the wake of an epidemic like situation. In order to efficiently equip the alternative medicinal systems of knowledge to provide remedies, therapies and drugs for new diseases, greater investments in drug discovery and research needs to be done by the government.

Of the steps that need to be undertaken to utilize alternative medicinal systems for the benefit of public health, the foremost is to disseminate the fact that alternative medicinal systems cannot be judged on the parameters of western medicine and thereby regarded as regressive. The social acceptance and the success of the alternative medicinal systems in India would be mutually enforcing.

In order to cut down on public health preparedness expenditures in India, it is important to eradicate the major limitations of the Indian public health system. It is important to understand the socio-cultural realities of India before imposing or importing any other model of disease preparedness and prevention. Importantly, the discourse on health and its status in India brings to fore the debate between modernity and traditionalism. It suffices to state that no one knowledge system is or can be made superior to the other. The alternative systems of medicine available in India have the potential of a system that the people believe in because it is based on a philosophy and has survived the test of time. What is important for India is to nurture a system of healthcare that helps boost the immunity of seekers, is inexpensive, easily available and helps cut down on public health preparedness expenditures.

Author Note
Monalisa Joshi, Research Assistant, Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi