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Chickenpox outbreak

May 19, 2017


FOR months now, reports have been trickling in from Faisalabad, and the surrounding areas, of people dying of chickenpox. Wednesday saw yet another case when a man at the Allied Hospital succumbed to the largely benign but infectious illness. By some accounts, the death toll over the past few weeks alone exceeded 20. Exact figures are difficult to come by, and therein lies the problem: far from the provincial administration immediately coming up with a plan to spread information about the illness and providing training on diagnosing and managing the infection to medical staff at all health centres, including the smaller ones in the rural areas, action has been limited to very few medical facilities. It does not seem perturbed by local reports that the number of cases of chickenpox appears to be in the hundreds. The problems in controlling such an outbreak are manifold — including the citizenry’s own lack of awareness in seeking sound medical advice when symptoms begin to manifest themselves and its propensity to seek the help of unqualified ‘medics’ for fear of long queues at public-sector facilities. But it has also been reported that the condition of patients who approached smaller state-run facilities, including Basic Health Units and Rural Health Centres, was often misdiagnosed.

That in Pakistan’s most well-funded province people are dying of an illness that is not considered dangerous, unless there are complications, and for which a vaccine is also available is appalling. The Faisalabad commissioner has said that health department officials have been asked to make isolation beds functional at tehsil headquarters hospitals and BHUs, ensure the provision of equipment and medicines, and gather data from private medical facilities. It is to be hoped that such steps are taken on an urgent footing, with officialdom spurred on by the knowledge that many needless deaths have already occurred. In the long term, the inclusion of the chickenpox vaccine on the Expanded Programme on Immunisation might be worth considering. The goal must be to spread the vaccination net as far as possible.

Published in Dawn, May 19th, 2017