Delhi, May 12: More than 500 kids died during 2008-09 as the government had no vaccines to protect them against common infections.
If you had any doubts why India is still called a third world country, despite being an acknowledged nuclear and space power, look no further.
While the government was busy signing a landmark agreement to seal the nuclear deal with the US during 2008-09, 522 kids were dying in its backyard.
It was not due to some endemic disease but common ailments that can be cured through vaccines. But, then there were no vaccines available. Why? Because the manufacturers who produce more than 80 per cent of the preventive serums, which the government makes available to the people, were asked to close operations. Why? Because they were not following standard procedures in producing the life-saving drugs.
An RTI plea to the Union Health Ministry has revealed that 522 kids died in several central government-run hospitals across the country due to a severe shortage of vaccines for BCG, DPT and Tetanus.
Tip of the iceberg
Interestingly, the figures did not say anything about thousands of hospitals that are run by state-governments, civic bodies, charitable organisations and private players. Also, the figures pertaining to the year 2009-10 are still awaited.
"This figure is just the tip of the iceberg as the central government-run hospitals comprise a meagre 15 per cent of the total medical service providers. There is no data available on the deaths of children that took place in other hospitals during this period," said Dr Babu KV, the RTI applicant.
Dr Babu is a Kerala-based ophthalmologist and a central council member of the Indian Medical Association (IMA). He filed the RTI application after the union government decided to abruptly close the three nodal vaccine manufacturers -- Central Research Institute, Kasauli, Himachal Pradesh, Pasteur Institute, Kunnur, Kerala and BCG Vaccine Lab in Chennai - in 2008.
The institutes were abruptly closed following a report that they were not adhering to the cGMPs - compliance of Good Medical Practices. "But cGMPs are not about quality of the medicine and the vaccines produced at a centre. On the contrary, these are the regulations about infrastructure of the manufacturing unit like the number of people employed, air-conditioning etc," said Dr Babu.
After the closure of these institutes, the contract for manufacturing the vaccines was given to private companies and the biggest pie of the contract went to two companies -- Biological Evans, Hyderabad and Serum Institute of India, Pune. "But these companies did not have the wherewithal to produce vaccines on such large scales and missed their deadlines leading to a shortage in supply," he said.
In fact, the Parliament Standing Committee on Health led by the then Samajwadi Party general secretary Amar Singh had said in its report that Biological Evans was not equipped to handle the manufacture of such life-saving drugs. The RTI also revealed that Biological Evans and Serum Institute were never checked for compliance to the cGMP practices and the vaccines produced by them were also never subjected to quality control.
Meanwhile, to meet the acute shortage the government released the stock of vaccines manufactured by the earlier suppliers. "Isn’t it amusing that the institutes which were closed for not applying proper procedures in producing vaccines were asked for meeting the shortfall," Dr Babu said.
According to figures from Central Bureau of Health Intelligence (CBHI), 71 infants died in Delhi alone which has the maximum number of central government-run hospitals. Even in Delhi, the above deaths were registered in just two hospitals -- Safdarjung Hospital and Kalavati Saran Hospital. Safdarjung hospital also registered the lone case of death from Polio while 26 children died because of tetanus. In Kalavati Saran hospital, eight children died of diphtheria, 18 each of tetanus and measles.
During the same period (2008-2009) there was a severe drop in the vaccine coverage all over the country. As per the figures provided by the health ministry and affiliated organisations, the BCG vaccine coverage fell down from 100 per cent to 52 per cent, DPT coverage came down from 81 per cent in 2007 to 43.8 per cent in 2008. The worst was with the pulse polio immunisation campaign where the national coverage dropped from 81.4 per cent to 43 per cent.