Biological Disaster Management - Definition, Classification & Facts for UPSC

A natural catastrophe having unfortunate consequences is called a disaster. Biological disasters are natural scenarios involving disease, disability, or death on a large scale among humans, animals, and plants due to micro-organisms like bacteria, or viruses, or toxins.

In this article, you can read all about biological disaster management in India for IAS Exam. Disaster management is an important topic in the UPSC syllabus and one that is featured regularly in the newspapers. Here, you can read about the term, types, and the institutional and legal frameworks in India.

What is a Biological Disaster?

Definition The devastating effects caused by an enormous spread of a certain kind of living organism that may spread disease, viruses or infestation of plant, animal or insect life on an epidemic or pandemic level
Epidemic Level Indicates a disaster that affects many people in a given area or community
Pandemic Level  Indicates a disaster that affects a much larger region, sometimes an entire continent or even the whole planet. For example, the recent H1N1 or Swine Flu pandemic

Biological Disasters – Important Facts for UPSC

  1. The nodal agency for handling epidemics – Ministry of Health and Family Welfare
    • Decision-making
    • Advisory body
    • Emergency medical relief providing
  2. The primary responsibility of dealing with biological disasters is with the State Governments. (Reason – Health is a State Subject).
  3. The nodal agency for investigating outbreaks – National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD)
  4. Nodal ministry for Biological Warfare – Ministry of Home Affairs (Biological warfare is the use of biological agents as an act of war)

Biological Disasters – Classifications

Charles Baldwin developed the symbol for biohazard in 1966.

Biological Disaster Management - Logo

The US Center for Disease Control classifies biohazards into four biosafety levels as follows:

  1. BSL-1: Bacteria and Viruses including Bacillus subtilis, some cell cultures, canine hepatitis, and non-infectious bacteria. Protection is only facial protection and gloves.
  2. BSL-2: Bacteria and viruses that cause only mild disease to humans, or are difficult to contract via aerosol in a lab setting such as hepatitis A, B, C, mumps, measles, HIV, etc. Protection – use of autoclaves for sterilizing and biological safety cabinets.
  3. BSL-3: Bacteria and viruses causing severe to fatal disease in humans. Example: West Nile virus, anthrax, MERS coronavirus. Protection – Stringent safety protocols such as the use of respirators to prevent airborne infection.
  4. BSL-4: Potentially fatal (to human beings) viruses like Ebola virus, Marburg virus, Lassa fever virus, etc. Protection – use of a positive pressure personnel suit, with a segregated air supply.

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Biological Disaster – Legislations

The following legislations have been enacted in India for the prevention of biohazards and implementation of protective, eradicative, and containing measures when there is an outbreak:

  1. The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974
  2. The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981
  3. The Environmental (Protection) Act, 1986 and the Rules (1986)
  4. Disaster Management Act 2005 – this provides for the institutional and operational framework for disaster prevention, mitigation, response, preparedness, and recovery at all levels.

Prevention of Biological Hazards

The basic measure to prevent and control biohazards is the elimination of the source of contamination.

Preventive Measures for workers in the field (medical):

  1. Engineering controls – to help prevent the spread of such disasters including proper ventilation, installing negative pressure, and usage of UV lamps.
  2. Personal hygiene – washing hands with liquid soap, proper care for clothes that have been exposed to a probably contaminated environment.
  3. Personal protection equipment – masks, protective clothing, gloves, face shield, eye shield, shoe covers.
  4. Sterilization – Using ultra heat or high pressure to eliminate bacteria or using biocide to kill microbes.
  5. Respiratory protection – surgical masks, respirators, powered air-purifying respirators (PAPR), air-supplying respirators.

Prevention of Biological Disasters

Prevention includes the following measures that should be taken before (preventive), during, and after any outbreaks.

Environmental Management:

  1. Safe water supply, proper maintenance of sewage pipelines – to prevent waterborne diseases such as cholera, typhoid, hepatitis, dysentery, etc.
  2. Awareness of personal hygiene and provision for washing, cleaning, bathing, avoiding overcrowding, etc.
  3. Vector control:
    • Environmental engineering work and generic integrated vector control measures.
    • Water management, not permitting water to stagnate and collect and other methods to eliminate breeding places for vectors.
    • Regular spraying of insecticides, outdoor fogging, etc. for controlling vectors.
    • Controlling the population of rodents.

Post-disaster Epidemics Prevention:

  1. The risk of epidemics is increased after any biological disaster.
  2. Integrated Disease Surveillance Systems (IDSS) monitors the sources, modes of diseases spreading, and investigates the epidemics.

Detection and Containment of Outbreaks:

This consists of four steps as given under:

  1. Recognizing and diagnosing by primary healthcare practitioners.
  2. Communicating surveillance information to public health authorities.
  3. Epidemiological analysis of surveillance data
  4. Public health measures and delivering proper medical treatment.

Biological Disaster – Legal Framework

  1. The Epidemic Diseases Act was enacted in the year 1897.
  2. This Act does not provide any power to the center to intervene in biological emergencies.
  3. It has to be substituted by an Act that takes care of the prevailing and foreseeable public health needs including emergencies such as BT attacks and the use of biological weapons by an adversary, cross-border issues, and international spread of diseases.
  4. It should give enough powers to the central and state governments and local authorities to act with impunity, notify affected areas, restrict movement or quarantine the affected area, enter any premises to take samples of suspected materials, and seal them.
  5. The Act should also establish controls over biological sample transfer, biosecurity, and biosafety of materials/laboratories.

Biological Disaster – Institutional Framework

In the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoH&FW), public health needs to be accorded high priority with a separate Additional Directorate General of Health and Sanitation (DGHS) for public health. In some states, there is a separate department of public health. States that do not have such arrangements will also have to take initiatives to establish such a department.

Biological Disaster – Operational Framework

  1. At the national level, there is no policy on biological disasters. The existing contingency plan of MoH&FW is about 10 years old and needs extensive revision. All components related to public health, namely apex institutions, field epidemiology, surveillance, teaching, training, research, etc., need to be strengthened.
  2. At the operational level, Command and Control (C&C) are identifiable clearly at the district level, where the district collector is vested with certain powers to requisition resources, notify a disease, inspect any premises, seek help from the Army, state, or center, enforce quarantine, etc. However, there is no concept of an incident command system wherein the entire action is brought under the ambit of an incident commander with support from the disciplines of logistics, finance, and technical teams, etc. There is an urgent need for establishing an incident command system in every district.
  3. There is a shortage of medical and paramedical staff at the district and sub-district levels. There is also an acute shortage of public health specialists, epidemiologists, clinical microbiologists, and virologists.
  4. Biosafety laboratories are required for the prompt diagnosis of the agents for the effective management of biological disasters. There is no BSL-4 laboratory in the human health sector. BSL- 3 laboratories are also limited. Major issues remain regarding biosecurity, the indigenous capability of preparing diagnostic reagents, and quality assurance.
  5. Lack of an Integrated Ambulance Network (IAN). There is no ambulance system with advanced life-support facilities that are capable of working in biological disasters.
  6. State-run hospitals have limited medical supplies. Even in normal situations, a patient has to buy medicines. There is a lack of stockpile of drugs, important vaccines like the anthrax vaccine, PPE, or diagnostics for surge capacity. In a crisis, there is further incapacitation due to tedious procurement procedures.

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