Last few decades have witnessed unprecedented human growth. The population has grown rapidly in urban/semi-urban cities and towns compared to the rural areas. Parallelly, there is also an increased incidence of infectious diseases. These diseases fall into three categories, new infections; undefined infections and age-old infections with new features (like multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis). Some of these diseases are highly pathogenic, spreading humans to humans rapidly and have high morbidity and mortality. Therefore people in different geographical areas are at risk.
In an era of information technology and internet, news of unusual health events occurring in any part of the world spread rapidly. Print and social media misguide public and create unnecessary panic within minutes. The recent outbreak of Nipah virus in Indian states of Kerala is one of the classic examples.
Some media report held bats residing in well of a house in Soopikkada Village, Kozhikode district responsible for the outbreak, however, blood samples of these bats tested negative for the presence of the virus. Out of 16 confirmed cases, 14 already died thus creating panic among the general public and putting nearby state health departments on highest alert. Hence people in affected and nearby areas are confused about do’s and don’ts; where and whom to contact for further information and when to consult a doctor etc. Under these circumstances, informing and guiding general public is of utmost importance to avoid unnecessary panic. This is also important as most people in rural geography have limited access to the internet but well connected through telephony and mobile networks.
Many states now have health information helplines that inform, counsel, and give correct information on a variety of health issues to their callers. Amidst Nipah disease outbreak in Kerala, one of such health information helpline known as “Arogya Vaani” in the state of Karnataka came as a savior. “104 Arogya Vaani” in Karnataka was instrumental in providing disease-related information and referral of suspect cases to nearby health facilities. Between May 22-24th 2018, eighty-seven people across 28 districts in Karnataka contacted the helpline. Three suspected cases were identified based on health history, referred to nearby health facilities. Further investigation and blood sample report found them free from Nipah virus infection.
Based on our health helpline experience, we learned four important lessons –
(1) People are in need of accurate and reliable information whenever there is an unusual health activity
(2) Accurate information and counseling can help people making an informed decision regarding their health
(3) People may not spend unnecessary out of pocket money in the private sector if they are well informed and aware, and
(4) A burden on secondary and tertiary healthcare facilities may be reduced if only suspected cases are handled.
Finally, we conclude that health information helplines can act as a crucial information source in general or in case of any health emergency. The health department and agencies running such helplines need to publicise them widely for mass use.
The blog is Written by: Dr. Vishal Dogra, Dr. Shailendra KB Hegde, Yakoob Menon