Poor surveillance of a swine flu outbreak in India concerns health researchers at the Massachusetts Institute for Technology, who say a new H1N1 influenza strain is far more dangerous than Indian health officials admit.
A mutation in the new H1N1 strain allows this form of swine flu to attack an infected person’s respiratory cells more virulently, according to the study published today in the journal, Cell Host & Microbe. This finding contradicts previous government reports that the strain currently sweeping India was the same strain and has not changed since it spread worldwide between 2009 and 2012 and left 18,000 people dead.
In order to assess how the mutated strain is developing, MIT researchers stressed the need for better surveillance and public awareness of the disease.
“The point we’re trying to make is that there is a real need for aggressive surveillance to ensure that the anxiety and hysteria are brought down and people are able to focus on what they really need to worry about,” said Ram Sasisekharan, a MIT biological engineering professor and the study’s lead author, in a released statement. “We need to understand the pathology and the severity, rather than simply relying on anecdotal information.”
The World Health Organization is “closely monitoring this situation,” said Gregory Härtl, the WHO’s head of public relations and social media, via Twitter on Wednesday.
“So far no major changes of the #H1N1pdm09 viruses have been identified by the NIC (National Informatics Centre) of India,” Härtl said on Twitter.
So far, an estimated 1,500 people in India have died as a result of the virus since December, the Hindustan Times reported on Wednesday. Over 27,000 people already may have been infected in nearly every state and union territory of India, a country whose population is more than 1.2 billion people.
Once a person is infected, treatment options are limited. The Indian government has updated a list of pharmacies and outlets in 36 states and union territories that are licensed to carry oseltamivir, also commonly referred to as Tamiflu.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, Tamiflu is one of three recommended forms of medication used to treat H1N1, along with Relenza and Rapivab.
People who believe they may have been infected with swine flu should stay home, wash their hands well and often, cover their mouth when they sneeze or cough, avoid crowds or exposing other members of their household, according to Mayo Clinic guidelines.
The outbreak’s spread prompted social activists and politicians to spread awareness of the virus and how to prevent it. NDTV reported that Anil Vij, a health minister in the North Indian state of Haryana, discouraged people from shaking hands, saying, “[W]e have to rid ourselves of this foreign habit.”
“Whether you say ‘Namaste,’ or ‘Sat Sri Akal,’ or ‘Allahu Akbar,’ or ‘God is Great,’ say it with folded hands,” he said, according to NDTV.
Rallies are popping up across the country in an attempt to raise public awareness of what precautions people should take to stem the spread of swine flu.
Satbir Singh, a social activist and former mayor of Delhi, attended a rally on Wednesday outside of one of the city’s public transit stations to get people’s attention and aid prevention efforts.
“We have taken upon ourselves to spread the message as far and wide as possible,” Singh said via direct message on Twitter. “Everyday during morning and evening hours, we go with our teams to crowded spots like metro stations and the like, to spread the message and to make people understand the gravity of the situation.”
— Satbir Singh (@ChSatbirSingh) March 11, 2015