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Goa’s Own Virological Lab

At least four residents of Pali in Sattari taluka have died during past seven weeks of Kyasanur Forest Disease (KFD) or monkey disease, a tick-borne viral hemorrhagic fever. The disease is endemic to central west Karnataka and was never known to exist in Goa. It took some time therefore for the state health officials to identify the disease with the help of Manipal Centre for Viral Research (MVRC). Delay in identification means delay in right intervention. The deaths from KFD could have been prevented had there been a quicker diagnosis of the disease, which would have helped in taking preventive measures. Twenty persons were affected, and all those who tested positive for KFD after the disease was identified have been cured and sent home.

The appearance of KFD in Goa and the delayed response of the government to it has once again brought to the fore the need for the state health department to have its own virological testing facilities. KFD is not the only disease. There have also been deaths from H1N1, another viral disease. There are cases of chickungunya and dengue. Besides, the state has recorded cases of Japanese Encephalitis, rabies and pox diseases. A virological testing laboratory of the state health department could test scores of samples during the monsoon when cases of Japanese Encephalitis and other haemorrhage fever cases are reported and during the winter when cases of diseases such as H1N1 swell up as the virus spreads. Goa being a tourist state, it is even more important for the state health department to prevent, detect and control spread of viral diseases as any outbreak could harm the industry which over the years has emerged as one of the main sources of employment and public revenue for the people and the state. A virus can be brought in by a traveller, so prompt testing and prompt action would keep up a healthy atmosphere for the residents as well as tourists.

It is ironical that a state that boasts of high standards of medical facilities does not have facilities to conduct tests for diseases caused by viruses like Japanese Encephalitis, H1N1, KFD, rabies, pox and other haemorrhage diseases. Samples have to be sent to the National Institute of Virology or private laboratories. Reports from some of the private laboratories are not confirmatory and hence the samples have to be sent for polymerase chain reaction testing and culture testing to the few centres that exist in the country. The state health department should take advantage of the central government scheme to be launched through the Indian Council for Medical Research for setting up a state-of-the-art virological laboratory with sophisticated equipment in every state medical college to establish a laboratory in the Goa Medical College and Hospital complex. The major funding for the virological laboratory will come from the Centre.

Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar and Deputy Chief Minister Francis D’Souza, who is also Health Minister, must grab the opportunity and find the minor contributory funding and not put it off on grounds of lack of fund with the state government owing to mining shutdown. A virological laboratory is going to cost not more than Rs 5 crore, so the amount of money Parsekar and D’Souza need to organize could be under Rs 2 crore or so. They would have to sanction construction of a special building of more than 300-sq metre built-up area for the laboratory with bio-medical safety features like laminar air flow that would prevent spread of dangerous viruses. The state government would also have to recruit highly trained specialists and technicians to man the posts in the laboratory and might have to use the same pattern on payment like it did in the case of cardiac surgery specialists.

A state laboratory could stay busy with testing of cases of Japanese Encephalitis, H1N1, rabies, KFD and other haemorrhage fever cases. There might not be a continuous flow of samples for testing viruses from around Goa, given its small size. However, it is a well-known fact that the state has been supplementing health care in the neighbouring districts of Karnataka and Maharashtra. The laboratory could keep its hands full with samples from these states. In the process, it could earn some money for itself by charging fees for testing the samples from outside the state. Testing samples in neighbouring states could also help the state health authorities in getting alerted by any outbreak there. The state health department can still not pinpoint any direct linkage between the KFD prevalence in central west Karnataka and the outbreak in Pali in Sattari in Goa. The virological laboratory can act like an early warning system for the state health authorities to prepare themselves in advance for preventive measures and to be quick in identification and intervention in cases of occurrence in the state.

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