Data — A healthy way to assess progress 

This week in health: a call for data transparency in healthcare, India’s own CAR-T cell therapy, the WHO alert on viral hepatitis and the latest COVID-19 updates.

Updated - April 16, 2024 08:46 pm IST

Published - April 16, 2024 03:44 pm IST

Image for representational purpose only. File

Image for representational purpose only. File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

(In the weekly Health Matters newsletter, Ramya Kannan writes about getting to good health, and staying thereYou can subscribe here to get the newsletter in your inbox.)

The undoubtedly biggest story in healthcare in India last week, came of all things, from the Lancet. The peer-reviewed journal published an editorial in the context of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections in the country, stressing on the possible fallouts the political situation might have for the health care in the country, consequently, the welfare of its citizens. Bindu Shajan Perappadan reported on it for The HinduWithout access to recent and reliable data, democratic choices are impoverished. It warned that for the first time in 150 years, a whole decade has gone by with no official comprehensive data on India or its people, jeopardising India’s healthcare ecosystem. The systematic attempt to obscure through the lack of data means that the Indian people are not being fully informed. Alongside this, the declining government spending on health, delay in conducting the 2021 census and the Sample Registration System survey report for 2021 and not releasing in the public domain completed poverty surveys, have also been highlighted as shortcomings in the health care ecosystem of the country. Going back to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Lancet said that another contentious issue is the lack of credibility of India’s continuing claim that only 0·48 million people died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, whereas the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other estimates are six to eight times larger. Mincing no words, the editorial asks pointed questions: “Why is the Government so afraid of showing the real state of health? And more importantly, how does the Government intend to measure progress when there is no data?” There has been no response yet from the government officially on this, but one can only hope that the message has been driven home effectively and there will be no further hiding of data behind shadows and wistful thinking.           

The other big story last week was the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Patanjali Ayurved case. Now some might say these are issues that are not core health developments, but it would be rather naive to write them out of the true impact they will have on the future. To look at health is to look at it in a wholesome manner; and be aware of its multiple economic, legal, cultural and societal manifestations. Good healthcare is a life saver, there cannot be any compromises to its delivery. Krishnadas Rajagopal wrote in detail: SC declines Ramdev, Patanjali apology; expresses concern over FMCGs taking gullible consumers ‘up and down the garden path’ . This judgement had, at its heart, the welfare of the people of this country, and the judges did not hold their punches again. 

The Court refused to accept a second round of apologies from self-styled yoga guru Baba Ramdev, Patanjali Ayurved Limited, and its managing director Acharya Balkrishna in a contempt case, flagging concern about Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCG) companies playing with the health of the gullible public while the government fails to crack the whip. The Bench, also comprising Justice Ahsanuddin Amanullah, said the objectionable and misleading advertisements by Patanjali Ayurved to cure everything from diabetes and obesity to liver dysfunction, and even COVID-19 during the months of the pandemic, were “deliberate and wilful violations” of the Drugs and Magic Remedies (Objectionable Advertisements) Act of 1954 and its Rules. The apex court had initiated contempt proceedings against Patanjali Ayurved and Mr. Balkrishna on February 27 for violating an undertaking given to it in November 2023 that they would refrain from advertising “cures” in violation of the 1954 Act. On November 21, the apex court had directed the company to not make any “casual statements” to the print or electronic media about the efficacy of their medicinal products or indulge in any disparaging statements about other disciplines of medicine, including allopathy. However, the very next day, Mr. Ramdev had held a press conference. 

The court also turned its ire on the Uttarakhand State Licensing Authority for choosing to turn a blind eye to the misleading advertisements. “You twiddled your thumbs… Why should we not come down like a ton of bricks on your officers? They have been filibustering… You were in deep slumber from 2018, when the first complaint came about their products, to 2024,” Justice Kohli told an official from the Uttarakhand State Licensing Authority who was present in the courtroom. It remains to be seen whether this will be a deterrent to the multiple advertisements promising fantastic cures and defrauding the gullible public, being issued frequently in Indian media.

Another significant order, this week, is the government directing e-commerce firms to remove Bournvita and other drinks from the ‘health drinks’ category. The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights after an enquiry concluded that there is no ‘health drink’ defined under FSS Act 2006. The sugar content in the beverages hit it clean out of the health drink park, though the company argued that all its ingredients had been approved by FSSAI and were safe for human consumption. Again, it remains to be seen how forceful implementation would be.

A long piece by Soujanya Padikkal explains the fascinating story of how scientists wrote the formula for, and developed India’s own CAR-T cell therapy to treat some forms of cancer. The grit, determination and scientific collaborations that made NexCAR19 possible in the relatively short time it took to develop, are nothing short of inspiring. Hit the link to read the story in detail.                  

Suchitra Karthikeyan and Rajeev Jayadevan bring you crucial updates on COVID-19 in these two stories: the current scenario and how are we tackling COVID-19, and a blood bank study reveals true incidence of Long COVID.

While we were scouting around for a tail piece this week, up came Matthew Farrer’s exposition of his team’s long-term research: they identified a newfound genetic variant that causes Parkinson’s and shows a way to beat it. This mutation was linked to parkinsonism in three families and found in 13 other people in several countries, including Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Turkey, Tunisia, the U.S. and the U.K. Although the affected individuals and families originate from many parts of the world, they share an identical fragment of chromosome 6 that contains RAB32 Ser71Arg. This suggests these patients are all related to the same person; ancestrally, they are distant cousins. It also suggests there are many more cousins to identify.

From the Health page

Here are other key picks that you might like to read this week:

S. Vijay Kumar reports on the Centre order to probe into foreigners receiving organs in India.  

Zubeda Hamid’s In Focus podcast looks at what the 10,000 genome project can tell us about India’s health

If you wanted to know why there is a WHO alert on viral hepatitis, read on.   

If you’ve taken sides, either on the sides of modern medicine or Indian medicine, or you are comfortable straddling both, this story by C. Maya is for you: Ahead of Lok Sabha polls, debate over ‘mixopathy’ in healthcare hots up.    

The Hindu’s Editorial on TB drug shortages: Gross mismanagement.

Just as we started with the significance of data, let’s conclude this week, with a revealing story that revolves around data and pertains to the future health of this nation. Siddharth Kumar Singh writes on the pressing need to address India’s malnutrition landscape.

For many more health stories, head to our health page, and subscribe to the health newsletter, here.  

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