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Page last updated at 01:55 GMT, Friday, 7 August 2009 02:55 UK

Swine flu spreads fear in Indian city

By Prachi Pinglay
BBC News, Pune

Patients at the Naidu hospital
Hospitals in Pune have had to deal with streams of people

As Mamta Valmiki stood in the queue to get her two children tested for the swine flu virus at Naidu Hospital in Pune, in the western Indian state of Maharashtra, she was visibly worried and annoyed.

The city had just recorded the first swine flu death in India on 3 August and the hospital is one of only two places where swine flu tests are administered in the entire Pune district.

As a result it saw a rush of over 1,000 people a day for suspected flu.

Panic stricken crowds seemed to converge at the hospital to be "safe rather than sorry" resulting in tremendous pressure on hospital authorities and much angst on both sides.

'Quarantined'

Mamta Valmiki watched her daughter helplessly standing weakly in the queue.

"I came here at 9.30am and it is already 2pm. We have not eaten anything since morning and my son and daughter both have fever. They sent us to some other building and we have been directed back over here. I don't want to take any chances with my children's health. Why are they not doing the test on them?" she asked.

At the same venue was a father who did not wish to be named. He had been watching over his son who had tested positive after travelling abroad.

He said the hospital authorities had been good to him and had taken good care of his son.

Sneha Chandrashekhar
One must understand that even if you are tested positive as long as it is early stage there is no need to panic
Sneha Chandrashekhar

"My son has been quarantined and I can only look at him from outside. But I know he is fine. This criticism of hospital authorities is happening because of the panic and is not well founded."

The city has at least 96 confirmed cases of H1N1 virus since it started in May 2009. The authorities have tested over 600 persons and screened over 3,000 others.

At least 13 schools have been shut because of spread of the virus among school children.

There has been criticism that the authorities have been turning people away without testing them since 14-year-old school girl Reeda Sheikh died from the virus earlier this week in Pune.

Her family have lodged a complaint against doctors and hospitals for criminal negligence. They argue that the authorities delayed diagnosis and treatment resulting in her death.

The civic authority on Thursday announced 15 more screening centres which it says will be able to treat a greater number of worried people.

Concerned

Shreya and her sister, Sneha Chandrashekhar, both underwent tests nearly two weeks ago, when the virus had not become a "deadly epidemic".

Swine dlu hoarding in Pune
Hoardings warning of the dangers of swine flu are everywhere in Pune

While she tested positive and was treated in the quarantine ward for five days and under home quarantine for a week after that, Sneha, a microbiology graduate, tested negative and was allowed to go home.

Sneha told the BBC about the hospital's treatment then and people's panic now.

"When we were tested there was no problem and my sister was very looked after. We did not meet her for five days. I was tested because I am her sister and in direct contact.

"But my friends who also came with us for the test were not required to. One must understand that even if you are tested positive as long as it is early stage there is no need to panic. It is true that after Reeda's death people are more scared."

And parents remain concerned.

Sarika Kulkarni's daughter studies at the Abhinav Vidyalay school, which was closed for two weeks because of the virus.

It recently held a workshop so that parents and teachers could meet with health officials.

"My daughter is in the pre-primary section so she is not directly in contact with the children who got it.

"After we attended the meeting where we were told about swine flu and how one gets it. After that, we felt better.

"But with news of so many cases in Pune, I do worry and fear."

'Not diagnosed'

As more schools close, parents are being advised that children showing possible swine flu symptoms should stay at home.

Staff at the Naidu hospital
Hospital staff have at times been overwhelmed

Meghana Vaidya took Komal Vaidya, her nine-year-old daughter, for testing on Tuesday night.

"My daughter had a cold and slight fever for over a week. However, on Monday I felt worried as her fever was not coming under control.

"So I asked my family doctor if I should take her for testing and so we went to Naidu Hospital on Tuesday night.

"It took about an hour to meet the doctors and they checked her throat and said the test was not required.

"I might have over reacted but it is always better to be on the safer side. If nothing is detected it is good but what if someone's affected and is not diagnosed?"

'Panicking'

Ms Vaidya's views seem to conform with those of many other parents who argue that there should be more information about swine flu and how it differs from normal flu.

The Vaidya family
The Vaidya family, like many others, would rather be safe than sorry

"Maybe then, people will not throng the hospital for testing," she said. "People have started panicking only in the last one or two days."

Pune's Municipal Commissioner, Mahesh Zagde, attributes the panic generated by Reeda Singh's death to people not wanting to take chances.

"Until 3 August everything was working fine as the screening was done by private practitioners.

"After the casualty perhaps no-one wanted to take a chance, so many of them are sending regular flu patients to Naidu Hospital to get tests done.

"Only 615 tests have been done and of those 96 have tested positive. So we are urging private doctors to screen and co-operate."

At the Naidu hospital the queue gets shorter towards the end of the day.

But people still call for more awareness and quicker attention from doctors.

Even though there are 30 swine flu hoardings across the city and an extensive pamphlet operation underway, many citizens continue to doubt the ability of the authorities to keep the Pune district population properly informed.



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