Victory for global healthcare | Sunday Observer

Victory for global healthcare

7 May, 2023

Sri Lankans have rather short memories and not many people now remember the hard times we endured due to Covid-19, which claimed around 16,000 lives. More deaths were averted through a successful vaccination program, stringent lockdowns and most of all, strict adherence to health protocols. Now, in what could be termed as a victory for science and healthcare, the World Health Organization (WHO) ended the Global Health Emergency status for Covid which claimed seven million lives and infected 765 million worldwide. This comes three years after this designation was declared.

But this is no reason to give up entirely on health protocols such as wearing masks, washing or sanitising hands frequently and keeping the distance from the next person which kept Covid at bay. Like all other viral diseases, Covid had a good run and then gradually went away, which led the authorities to relax some of these guidelines, including the mandatory use of masks.

But the problem with viruses is that they never really disappear. They keep mutating – the Coronavirus that causes Covid spawned deadly strains such as Delta and milder strains such as Omicron. Now there are signs that Covid is again gaining ground slowly in Sri Lanka, with the detection of a handful of patients almost every day. There is no idea whether newer Coronavirus strains such as Arcturus, first discovered in India, are at play here in Sri Lanka, because we hardly do any genome sequencing. This strain causes Conjunctivitis, in addition to usual Covid symptoms. But the new strains could be circulating here, since international travel has now almost returned to pre-pandemic levels.

Many people still continue to wear masks both indoors and outdoors. This is an acknowledgement that the Covid threat still persists and also a precautionary measure. However, it is apparent that most people have done away with the other health protocols, which could lead to a dangerous escalation of Covid cases if the virus gains a bigger foothold.

It is, therefore, vital for all to follow the Covid health guidelines, because they could also apply to the prevention of other viral diseases including influenza (a variety of which is in circulation now), Respiratory Syncytial Virus (RSV), Marburg and to a lesser extent, Mpox, which requires a degree of physical contact. Although there is no record of the latter three ailments occurring here, we have to be on guard given the increase in inbound travel.

One saving grace is that scientists know much more about Covid now than they did in 2020 and vaccines are readily available, in addition to clinical treatments such as Paxlovid and Evusheld for patients who have already contracted the disease. Researchers are also focusing heavily on Long Covid, whereby Covid symptoms linger on in some patients for a year or more. Unfortunately, Sri Lankan health authorities have not conducted any kind of survey on the possible number of Long Covid patients, which is a serious lapse as they could require lifelong care. Most other countries now have specialist Long Covid treatment centres.

While the authorities and the public must be on alert vis-à-vis Covid, more attention should be paid to the threat posed by dengue, which can be deadly if not detected early. More than 30,000 dengue cases (with 15 deaths) have already been detected islandwide in the first four months of 2023, with the Western Province leading the statistics. Worryingly, several Malaria cases too have been detected in Sri Lanka, which was declared “Malaria-free” by the WHO a few years back.

Since both these deadly diseases are caused by mosquito-borne parasites, it goes without saying that the best way to eliminate them is destroying mosquito breeding grounds and keeping the environment clean. In this respect, attention must be paid to abandoned lands and buildings that harbour mosquito breeding grounds. All families should also strive to keep their surroundings clean. The same goes for Government and private enterprises, schools and factories.

As if this confluence of diseases was not enough, rural dwellers have to contend with the rise of Leptospirosis (Rat Fever), which can sometimes be fatal if not diagnosed early. Leptospirosis is a bacterial infection spread mostly through the urine of rodents, dogs and farm animals and those who may come into contact with such animals must take extra care. Common symptoms include headache, muscle ache, fever, jaundice, vomiting, loose motion and skin rashes.

There is another reason why the old adage “prevention is better than cure” applies to all these diseases, especially in the current setting. Sri Lanka is just emerging from a debilitating economic crisis and some of the medicines available for these diseases in developed countries may not yet be available in our Government or private hospitals due to forex constraints. Besides, some hospitals have been deserted by doctors who have migrated. It is, therefore, important for the public to take all precautionary steps with regard to these diseases to reduce the overall burden on the healthcare system.


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