COVID-19 like any other respiratory disease now: Indian experts say bring back focus on all influenza-like illnesses

Countries should address needs of those with Long COVID, WHO’s transition plan recommended  

By Seema Prasad
Published: Wednesday 12 July 2023
At the moment, countries should be using the healthcare systems created during the pandemic period for monitoring and treating influenza-like illnesses and severe acute respiratory infections. Photo: iStock

There is broad consensus among the medical community worldwide as well as in India that COVID-19 is no longer a public health emergency of international concern (PHEIC), as announced by the World Health Organization (WHO) on May 5, 2023.

Health experts in India, who concur with WHO’s decision, said that COVID-19 is like any other respiratory illness now and other influenza-like diseases should be monitored just as closely.

“India had already reached the endemic stage nearly 10 months before WHO announced COVID-19 was no longer a PHEIC, so there is no concern here,” New Delhi-based public health specialist and consultant physician Chandrakant Lahariya told Down to Earth (DTE). He added that ending the PHEIC status of COVID-19 was a very well thought-out and epidemiologically sound decision.

Daily tracking of the disease is not needed in India anymore, Lahariya told DTE. He co-authored a book titled Till We Win: India's Fight Against COVID-19 Pandemic in 2020 with other prominent Indian doctors. The expert added:

Of course, the surveillance of SARS-C0V-2 will decline over a period of time in all countries. COVID-19 tracking should simply become an integral part of monitoring infectious and respiratory diseases.

“We know that there is a lot of influenza out there; we know that there are other respiratory pathogens as well. So, we should be tracking everything and not just SARS-COV-2,” said Gagandeep Kang, virologist and microbiologist at the Christian Medical College in Vellore, during an interview with the news website The Quint.

This year, a total of 3,038 laboratory-confirmed cases of various subtypes of Influenza, including H3N2, were reported till March 9. During the first nine days of March, acute respiratory illness / influenza-like illness stood at 133,412 cases. Till February 28, a total of 955 H1N1 cases have been reported, according to a press release by the Union Ministry of Health.

The number of active COVID-19 cases in India was 1,420 on July 11, 2023, with a recovery rate of 98.81 per cent, health ministry data showed.

At the moment, countries should be using the healthcare systems created during the pandemic period for monitoring and treating influenza-like illnesses and severe acute respiratory infections, said Lahariya. “SARS-CoV-2 should be considered like any other respiratory illness and it’s time we pay attention to all respiratory illnesses.”

The global medical community also agreed that the time had come to officially end the pandemic. “I think it was a very smart move. Tedros was right to end the PHEIC,” Lawrence Gostin, professor of Global Health Law at Georgetown University, told the journal The Lancet in May.

“No disease should be in a chronic state of emergency that goes on for years and years, because that dilutes the power of calling an emergency in the first place,” Gostin added.

WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, however, had expressed concern that surveillance reporting to WHO has declined significantly. During the 15th meeting of the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee, he said that inequity in access to healthcare would continue, compounded by pandemic fatigue.

WHO has updated its Strategic Preparedness and Response plan for 2023-2025 with the aim to transition to long-term disease management. “We must also continue to integrate COVID-19 surveillance and management into that for other respiratory diseases,” the document noted.

Multiple approaches to surveillance must be taken, such as sentinel surveillance, environmental surveillance, participatory surveillance, seroepidemiologic surveillance, event-based surveillance, and others, according to the updated plan.

Furthermore, clinical care for COVID-19 should be integrated into the primary healthcare system in all countries with pathways that care for vulnerable groups such as individuals who are pregnant or breastfeeding, children, and persons with risk factors for severe disease or chronic conditions, especially when associated with immunosuppression.

Countries should also proactively and actively address the needs of those individuals with Long Covid, the plan stated. It also encouraged countries to invest in research to address critical unknowns about epidemic and pandemic pathogens, including SARS-CoV-2.


Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.