File photo of Aattukal Pongala
File photo of Aattukal Pongala

Coronavirus: Virologists See High Risk At Aattukal Pongala

I am surprised this is happening in Kerala, says virologist who praised Kerala in BBC

Rejimon Kuttappan

Rejimon Kuttappan

Holding Aattukal Pongala in Thiruvananthapuram on Monday during the time of Coronavirus spread is highly risky, an Indian virologist said.

“The risk factor would be high and what precautions can one take if there are lakhs of people gathered at one place and time. State Health Department should look at this,” Shahid Jameel, an Indian virologist, and the chief executive officer of Wellcome Trust DBT India Alliance, told The Lede.

Dr Shahid is the virologist who praised Kerala’s health infrastructure which contained the spread of Coronavirus in a BBC discussion last Monday.

“Kerala has effective primary health centres in the state which are the first point of contact for the population and on the other end, the state is good at diagnosing and tracking,” Dr Shahid had said in the talk show.

Even Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan on Wednesday took to social media to state that Shahid’s acknowledgment will motivate the state's health department to fight such deadly infections with increased tenacity.

However, further commenting on the Aattukal Pongala, Shahid said such mass gatherings should be avoided at this time.

“It puts people at risk. I am surprised this is happening in Kerala, which has one of the best public health systems in India,” Shahid added.

At least 10 lakh people are expected to take part in Aattukal Pongala on March 09.

The capital city has already geared up for the festival. Women devotees have started to reserve spots on all the roads leading to the temple from all over the city with bricks to cook rice dessert as an offering to Aattukal Devi.

Women from even North Kerala have started arriving on trains and buses and hotels and lodges are fully booked even though 24 hours are left for the festival.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mass gatherings are highly visible events with the potential for serious public health consequences if they are not planned and managed carefully.

“There is ample evidence that mass gatherings can amplify the spread of infectious diseases. The transmission of respiratory infections, including influenza, has been frequently associated with mass gatherings. Such infections can be transmitted during a mass gathering, during transit to and from the event, and in participants’ home communities upon their return,” a WHO document titled Key planning recommendations for Mass Gatherings in the context of the current COVID-19 outbreak states.

World over, sporting events, conferences, pilgrimages and church services are being suspended because the situation involving Coronavirus is still fluid and there could be undetected virus transmission in the community.

Global statistics reveal that Coronavirus has spread to 97 countries, infecting 102,000 people and claiming 3495 lives, so far.

In India, till Friday, 31 people have tested positive for coronavirus, according to the Union Health Ministry. And the Union Ministry also has advised all states to avoid or postpone mass gatherings till Coronavirus is contained.

However, Kerala Health Minister KK Shailaja assured that currently there is no necessity to postpone the pongala.

On Friday, Shailaja allayed the fears and concerns saying the festival would be conducted as usual and extra vigil will be ensured this year in addition to the normal medical assistance, including ambulance, doctors and emergency facilities. We are taking extra vigil this year, she assured.

Meanwhile, Dr V Ramasubramanian, senior consultant, infectious diseases at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, told The Lede that holding a gathering of more than 200 or 300 people is a risk.

“However, it is the government which has to decide whether to take a risk by holding the gathering or be safe by cancelling the programme,” Ramasubramanian said.

“Coronavirus is just like flu. An infected person can spread it to three to 10 people and from there it can spread more. However, in this case, the mortality is not that scary. In this situation, if the government cancels the festival, then it may lead to other issues for the government in terms of cultural and religious sentiments,” said Ramasubramanian.

According to the WHO director-general, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus the mortality rate of Coronavirus is 3.4%.

Meanwhile, the Indian Medical Association Kerala Chapter President Dr Abraham Varghese shared a note stating that a large number of people gathering at one place must be avoided as far as possible.

“Chances of Coronavirus spreading at mass gatherings for various religious celebrations or not is high. If a gathering cannot be avoided, the instructions for the public for such occasions should be followed. When there are talks to postpone a major global event like the Olympics and when people are restricted from visiting various pilgrim centres across the world and several conferences are being postponed, a liberal state like Kerala should lead by example,” the IMA note read.

The Lede