“Did he die of swine flu?” demanded a scrawny man wearing a blue shirt and green surgical mask. He was one of a throng of news reporters packing the lobby of a private hospital in the heart of Bangalore, my city.
It was early August 2009, and India had just recorded its first casualty from the novel H1N1 influenza virus. This latest variant of influenza–a chimera of swine, avian and human flu genes–was raising grave concerns among the medical community worldwide. To try to contain a pandemic, countries were ordering stockpiles of antiviral drugs and initiating vaccine production on a wartime footing.
In Bangalore, as elsewhere, you could pick up any newspaper or watch any news channel and see headlines screaming “Swine Flu!” Men, women and children wore masks of all sizes, shapes and hues. Paranoia was at its peak: An innocuous sneeze could make people run helter-skelter for cover.
A few H1N1 cases had been confirmed in Bangalore, but fortunately none had been fatal. The local media, on the alert 24-7, were hounding any doctor associated with the diagnosis or treatment of swine flu. If word went out that a local hospital had a suspected case of swine flu, the press descended in swarms.
At this hospital, a 17-year-old boy who’d been admitted with a serious lung infection the previous day had died in the early hours of the morning. Somehow reporters had gotten wind of it–and so here they were, masks on, waiting for the boy’s doctor to come out and make an announcement.
They were clearly hoping for a scoop: “City’s first swine flu death!”
Although I was part of the H1N1 diagnostic testing team from the city’s public virology laboratory, I was here on personal business–meeting a colleague so that we could visit a mutual acquaintance who’d been admitted to the hospital for an acute asthma attack. Waiting in the lobby, I watched the reporters gather.
And then they grew restless: To go to press they needed to hear the doctor in charge confirm that the boy had died of swine flu. When they realized that some of the deceased boy’s relatives were right there waiting as well, they began firing questions:
“Did the doctors tell you he had swine flu?”
“Was he tested for swine flu?”
“When did his symptoms start?”
“Did anyone else in the family have the same symptoms?”
The relatives, overwhelmed by the boy’s death, were too agonized to speak. But I could sense their anger, pain and frustration at the reporters’ insensitive, incessant questions, and at the delay in being able to receive their loved one’s remains. (As per protocol in India, hospital authorities hand over the deceased’s body to relatives, who take it home so that family members and friends can pay last respects and complete traditional rituals before the body is cremated.) For a moment I worried that the relatives might run out of patience and explode under the reporters’ barrage.
“Leave the family alone!” I wanted to shout. But there were so many reporters; I felt too puny to take them on. Besides, letting them know that I was in any way associated with swine flu would be catastrophic. I would become a new target for their unwanted attentions–and I wasn’t even an employee of this hospital.
Shut up, I decided, and let the deceased boy’s physician do the talking.
Finally he appeared. A hush descended, the air thick with suspense and anticipation.
The boy had died of a lung infection, the doctor confirmed. Then he added, “But he tested negative for swine flu. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis.”
I expected the reporters to pounce upon him, demanding more information and clarifications. Instead, I heard only disappointed murmurs and sighs. Then they dispersed, pulling off their masks. They’d lost their scoop.
The news of the young man’s death from tuberculosis didn’t make it into any newspaper.
Why would it? In India, tuberculosis kills two people every three minutes. Each year my country sees about 1.9 million new cases, roughly half of them “open”–that is, infectious to others like this unfortunate, once-healthy 17-year-old.
A deadly disease.
But too ancient and common to be newsworthy.
About the author:
Reeta Mani is a virologist at the National Institute of Mental Health and Neurosciences (NIMHANS) in Bangalore, India. “Since childhood I have always loved to write. My profession earns me my bread and butter, but as a writer I have the freedom to express what I cannot possibly as a doctor. I write to free myself of thoughts that plague me, issues that dishearten me and inequities that leave me feeling helpless.” This is her second story in Pulse.