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Diphtheria strikes in Alwar?

diphtheria. Copyright: jarun011 / 123RF Stock Photo
Image credit: jarun011 / 123RF

The infectious disease diphtheria has become a cause for concern in Rajasthan’s Alwar district. Reports indicate that a number of children are displaying diphtheria-like symptoms.

Per a report filed by The Times News Network, thirteen children have presented with symptoms of the disease. Officials are referring samples to the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh for confirmation. Five of those affected are reported to be in critical condition and admitted to Alwar’s Rajiv Gandhi Hospital. One child is receiving treatment in the Rajasthan state capital Jaipur. Those in stable condition are being treated at home.

A survey of households detected 142 partially-vaccinated children in the village of Naharpur, pointing to a broader national concern surrounding the diphtheria vaccine. Diphtheria is a vaccine-preventable disease, but many Indian children miss out on the all-important shot. Last year, doctors warned that India needed to scale up coverage with the diphtheria vaccine and cautioned that herd immunity was dropping. Diphtheria cases in India reached a thirty-year high in 2018. 

The gravity of this concern cannot be understated. As previously reported by Health Issues India, “with treatment, one in ten patients still die; without treatment (involving the use of both antibiotics and antitoxin), this rises to one in two patients. This demonstrates the importance of the vaccination. Prevention is a far more favourable option than treatment as, even when provided medicine, death may still occur.”

Concerns over low rates of immunisation against diphtheria are heightened in the age of COVID-19, where multiple bodies have warned of the disruption to routine immunisation services as a consequence of the pandemic and resultant lockdown measures. A joint statement issued by the World Health Organization and UNICEF earlier this year said that “preliminary data for the first four months of 2020 points to a substantial drop in the number of children completing three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3). This is the first time in 28 years that the world could see a reduction in DTP3 coverage – the marker for immunisation coverage within and across countries.” 

What is happening in Alwar is symptomatic of a broader problem. Immunisation coverage is vital for a healthy society, particularly as it pertains to the health of our children. Maintaining vaccination coverage against life-threatening but preventable diseases is imperative, requiring concerted efforts at all levels of the healthcare system and society to ensure that we do not lapse, that progress is not undone, and that children are enabled to live healthy lives free from the needless scourge of contracting diseases we have long been able to avert.

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