Coming soon: A law to empower government to deal with epidemics, bio-terrorism & disasters efficiently

At present, we do not have a defined system in place on how to combat man-made disasters or natural disasters or outbreak of infectious diseases. This Act will help improve the response times to such disasters

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The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare has drafted a first-of-its-kind bill called Public Health (Prevention, Control and Management of epidemics, bio-terrorism and disasters) Bill, 2017 and has invited comments on the same. The bill has been drafted keeping in mind to empower local government bodies during emergency situations.

After receiving public comments, the bill (click here to see the draft of the bill) will be tabled in the parliament and once passed, it will become a law.

The Act will empower any state government or administration of Union Territory or any district or local authority if they think there is a public health emergency arisen or can likely arise.

Provisions proposed in the bill are stringent and aimed at giving more teeth to the government machinery so that they are able to tackle any emergency swiftly. One of the important aspects of the bill is imprisonment upto a period to two years and penalty ranging from Rs 10,000 to 1 lakh.

Further, the bill proposes to give power to local government body to isolate any person or class of persons infected or suffering from any such diseases that is infectious and can cause epidemic. It will give the local government authority to ban or regulate the purchase, transport, distribution, sale, supply and storage, as appropriate, of any drug or of any other material which contains hazardous or toxic substance.

The Bill mentions 33 epidemic prone diseases including cholera, influenza, HIV/AIDS, Japanese Encephalities, Extensively drug resistant tuberculosis (XDR-TB). It also mentions anthrax, Q fever, cholera, typhoid fever, Ebola virus, Congo Haemorrhagic fever etc as potential bio-terrorism agents.

Following the implementation of this new act, The Epidemic Diseases Act, 1897 will be repealed. Health experts say it was not only out dated but toothless.

“It is a very good move. Developed countries have such kind of an Act. With the help of the Act stakeholders will be able to effectively deal with communicable diseases, bioterrorism threats,” said Dr Om Shrivastav, infectious disease expert.

Welcoming the bill, Dr Avinash Supe, director of major civic hospitals and dean of KEM Hospital, Parel, said it will help them in effective management of communicable diseases, handling disasters. “During dengue outbreak, we faced a shortage of hospital beds. The problem is same across the country. Also, it will help us make the private doctors and hospitals notify communicable diseases to us. Many still do not report communicable diseases. The Act will help us effectively roll out our programs on infectious disease and disaster management,” said Supe.

The comments of all stakeholders will have to submitted to the ministry by March 25, 2017. “It is a welcome initiative and will help us in next 2-3 years to eradicate communicable diseases like dengue, malaria just the way our neighbouring country Sri Lanka has done,” said Dr Khusrav Bajan, intensivist from PD Hinduja Hospital. He said it will also mandate hospitals to be prepared for man-made and natural disasters.

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“At present, we do not have a defined system in place on how to combat man-made disasters or natural disasters or outbreak of infectious diseases. This Act will help improve the response times to such disasters. We have also witnessed that during certain outbreaks of communicable diseases, availability of hospital beds in private and public sector is always a problem. The hospitals might have to make a separate arrangement to handle such situations too,” said Bhajan.

He also added that the government should have a public private partnership module and identify leaders who have experience in handling disaster and epidemics in certain zones. “We should also have modules to train people to handle epidemics and disasters,” said Bhajan.