A legal framework to address outbreaks is the need of the hour
While fatality rates from the recent Ebola epidemic seem staggering, there are many scary viruses and bacteria that kill thousands every year without grabbing headlines. The world is brimming with many potent viruses of which Ebola is just one. The current Ebola outbreak ravaging in the West African continent has threatened the existence of the three countries, which are struggling in its clutches. For a developing country like India, situation is no better, given the confluence of existing environmental, socio- economic and demographic factors. The world is now witnessing the explosion of Criteria A pathogens that has no known treatment or prevention. India, with its over-burdened healthcare system and a huge population will be an easy prey to these ghastly viruses that almost kill all their victims.
WHO has issued several recommendations to improve India's national response towards infectious outbreaks and these are in various stages of development. Ms Asheena Khalakdina, the WHO's Team Leader for Communicable Diseases, recently told Reuters that there were critical gaps in India's Ebola preparedness, which questioned the country's capacity to tackle an outbreak of such a magnitude. Most of these viruses are so rare and hence do not attract any corporate benefits for big pharma companies that invest millions into research and drug development. With potent viruses knocking on doors, it is important to have a collaborative response from the scientific community and the government to devise a comprehensive national strategy, cutting across all relevant spheres to strengthen disease surveillance and research.
Need for a legal framework
In this age of non-communicable diseases, contagious illness still accounts for 30 percent of disease burden in India. Apart from various biological and behavioral public health interventions, the government now needs to closely look at the structural intervention, that is, the legal framework to review health system preparedness. Though India has a number of legal mechanisms to tackle epidemics, they are not addressed under a single legislation. Recent unprecedented outbreaks happening across the globe have raised fears, as to whether a century old Epidemic Diseases Act of India, formulated in 1897, is sufficient to combat the new challenges.
Currently, only the National Institute of Virology in Pune is explicitly tasked with studying viruses. Considering the plethora of dangerous bugs that sporadically erupt as epidemics in India, adequate research to contain the explosion of these viruses is not sufficiently carried out. Though Indian vaccine makers now have the capacity to quickly churn out prophylactic vaccines in wake of an epidemic, effective administration of this vaccine among the population is again a challenge.