Another 41 Mumbaikars tested positive for swine flu yesterday, taking the total count of cases in the city to 959, out of which eight citizens have lost their lives to the H1N1 virus so far.

Noor Mohammad took his daughter to Kasturba Hospital for treatment, and was told to buy masks for himself and his daughter, as the hospital did not have any in stock
Noor Mohammad took his daughter to Kasturba Hospital for treatment, and was told to buy masks for himself and his daughter, as the hospital did not have any in stock

The government finally seemed to sit up and take notice of the swine flu threat raging across the state when Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis announced on March 1 that all hospitals would provide free treatment to contain the epidemic.

A chemist wears an N95 mask, which, according to experts, is better suited to prevent the spread of swine flu than regular masks. Pic/Nimesh Dave
A chemist wears an N95 mask, which, according to experts, is better suited to prevent the spread of swine flu than regular masks. Pic/Nimesh Dave

Over a week later, not only are the authorities yet to make good on this promise, but more worryingly, it has emerged that many public hospitals are not even providing patients with masks to prevent the spread of the disease.

While the health ministry claims it is still “in process” of implementing the CM’s action plan, patients are having to struggle with costly treatment that can often go up to R30,000 to R50,000 at private hospitals. Dr Om Shrivastava, head of the infectious diseases cell at Jaslok Hospital, confirmed that patients were currently paying for treatment themselves.

“After the CM announced that the government will bear the cost of treatment for swine flu patients, there was a subsequent statement made by the ministry that it will only be for those below the poverty line. However, we haven’t admitted a single such patient, as there has been no official communication from the government to the hospital till now,” he said.

Sujata Saunik, principal secretary at the state government’s Public Health Department, said that no circular had been issued to confirm the CM’s assurance of free treatment. “We haven’t issued the circular to hospitals till date. The decision is still in process,” she said.

Shortage unmasked
However, the situation at public hospitals, such as JJ and KEM, seems to be even worse, as several are lacking basic preventive measures like the N95 mask, which specifically blocks the H1N1 virus. Fadnavis had announced last Sunday that “the entire cost of treatment at all hospitals will be borne by the state government.”

In reality, however, patients have to shell out anywhere between R125-R350 just to buy masks from pharmacies. Chemists said that the high cost of these masks deters many from buying them, and this could lead to the disease spreading even further.

“The cost is higher from the distributors’ end and we have no choice but to sell the masks at this price. The sale was relatively higher initially, at 10-15 masks every day. Now, people generally walk away when we tell them the price. We sell around 2-3 masks each day,” said a salesman at National Chemist, Parel.

Even Kasturba Hospital for Infectious Diseases the centre point in the battle against the outbreak does not have the N95 masks in stock and is now running out of basic surgical masks as well. Noor Mohammad (55), who works as a railway contractor, had admitted his 17-year-old daughter Nasra to Kasturba Hospital on March 4, where they were told to buy masks for themselves, as the hospital did not have any in stock.

“We had heard about the free treatment and expected Kasturba hospital to provide masks to us, but we were asked to go to the chemist and get the masks. When we heard that the price of the N95 masks, we decided to buy regular ones, for which we paid R20 each,” said Mohammad.

The masks he bought may be cheaper, but doctors confirm that basic surgical masks offer zero protection against swine flu. Dr Shrivastava said that N95 masks carry the best results in terms of preventing swine flu, and surgical masks are not suitable against strong contagious viruses like H1N1.

“N95 masks have several layers of protective fabric that provide best results against viruses like H1N1. It traps the virus and prevents it from getting it through to the user. Surgical masks can neither stop the infected person from spreading the virus, nor a non infected person from contracting it,” added Shrivastava.