Schools shut in India as swine flu anxiety spreads
Thousands of schools, colleges and cinemas shut down in India's financial capital Mumbai on Thursday to combat the spread of swine flu as the government struggled to contain public anxiety.
Blanket media coverage and the growing number of victims caused panic in some affected areas, with the virus already disrupting the Bollywood film industry, local businesses and planning for upcoming religious festivals.
India's Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad called for calm, as more people took to wearing surgical masks on the streets and flocked to medical centres for testing.
The central and state governments were taking "all possible measures", he told reporters, adding: "Only those people who have symptoms need to wear a mask.
"They have to wear the mask not to protect themselves but to protect others."
Some experts said that the government had not done enough to reassure people and explain the dangers posed by the (A)H1N1 virus. So far, 20 people confirmed to have the virus have died, according to a tally by local news agency PTI.
Professor Mohan Rao, from the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at New Delhi's Jawaharlal Nehru University, criticised the government for not having a "measured response" to deal with suspected cases.
"An epidemic, especially when it's something new, it always arouses more fear and more anxiety. Clear information that this is not a dangerous disease needs to be provided," he said.
Instead, primary health care providers in both the state and private sector were referring all cases for testing, overloading the system and creating "chaos", he told AFP.
Swine flu deaths and infections are small in comparison to other diseases endemic in India.
Some 1,173 people died from malaria in 2007 with nearly 1.5 million reported cases and 93 million probable cases, according to the World Health Organization.
In the same year, 331,268 people died from tuberculosis in India -- the highest rate in the world -- while there were nearly 1.3 million reported cases.
The latest swine flu victims were a 26-year-old woman in the southern city of Bangalore while an 11-month-old boy and a 75-year-old woman died in the western city of Pune, the Press Trust of India news agency said.
Pune, some 120 kilometres (75 miles) southeast of Mumbai, has been the worst hit Indian city, with 12 deaths and a cluster of infections.
Two people have died in Mumbai and about 2,000 people have been confirmed to have the virus across the country, the health ministry said.
The latest deaths come as Indians prepare for a long weekend, with the popular Hindu festival of Krishna Janmashtmi on Friday and Independence Day celebrations on Saturday.
Krishna Janmashtmi, or Dahi Handi as it is called in Mumbai, typically brings hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets to mark the birth of the god Krishna and to watch spectacular human pyramid formations.
Mumbai's annual Gay Pride march is also scheduled for Sunday.
Nitin Kirani, from India's first gay magazine Bombay Dost (Bombay Friends, using the city's former name), told AFP: "We are expecting about 1,000 people, unless people get panicky about swine flu... We intend to go ahead as planned."
The state government of Maharashtra, of which Mumbai is the capital, on Wednesday ordered all schools and colleges to shut for a week over fears of swine flu. Educational institutions in Pune closed earlier this week.
Mumbai, home to some 18 million people, has about 1,100 state schools and 350 colleges, with scores more private institutions.
The release of two major new Bollywood films was also postponed after cinemas in Mumbai, two neighbouring districts and Pune were shut until Sunday.
Businesses were hit as one of India's largest department store chains, Pantaloon Retail, announced a slump in sales in Mumbai and Pune in the run-up to one of the year's busiest shopping weekends.
Analysts said the scare could hit the broader economy at a time when India is already struggling with weak monsoon rains which have reduced crop planting and led to sharp increases in food prices.
"If the swine flu scare, which is limited to western India now, spreads to other parts of the country it will dent consumer sentiment and hurt retailers," said Amitabh Chakraborty, an analyst at Religare Securities.