MUMBAI – India cracked down on price gouging and hoarding of face masks and flu drugs Wednesday as the toll from H1N1 flu climbed to 17.
In Mumbai, India’s financial hub, schools and colleges were closed for a week after a mobile phone poll of residents and cinema halls shut for three days. The Bollywood film industry also put off big releases and canceled shoots.
The health ministry asked India’s states to set up more screening centres and prod private hospitals to help cope with large numbers of people demanding tests, said Vineet Choudhary, joint secretary of health.
India, he said, had an ample stockpile of flu drug Tamiflu, and was importing more supplies and testing kits. But he warned against hoarders and blackmarketeers.
"Retail sale of Tamiflu is not allowed," he told reporters.
"This is a public health emergency, a crisis in the country, and we expect that citizens will cooperate with the government. Shortages of masks and hoarding of drugs will not be tolerated."
He urged the media, which have used dramatic headlines and graphic visuals in reporting on flu developments, to "be responsible, to not give wrong information."
Earlier estimates had put the flu death toll at 12.
The ministry has met drug manufacturers and expects to have a stockpile of 30 million capsules within weeks, Choudhary said. Three Indian drug firms were also working on a vaccine, although it could take five to seven months to make one available.
The World Health Organization estimates H1N1 swine flu could affect 2 billion people globally.
Experts consider the pandemic to be moderate, meaning it can kill people and put many in hospital. But most people have mild symptoms and get better with little or no treatment.
Some newspapers sought to play down the hysteria. The Hindustan Times daily said many deaths could be attributed to late diagnosis and other complications.
In Mumbai, commuters on crowded local trains wore face masks or handkerchiefs, and several pharmacies were selling swine flu masks and hand sanitizers at several times the regular price.
In southern Hyderabad city, where the world badminton championships are being held, a Malaysian coach was quarantined Tuesday with symptoms of the flu.
The health ministry has also appealed for low-key celebrations at forthcoming festivals, which draw large crowds.
"The government directive is to avoid crowded places as the virus may spread easily," Choudhary said. "But as of now, there is no need to say all schools and colleges across the country must be closed. We don’t have that situation yet."