Two cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant were detected in Nepal on Monday since the third variant of the virus was found in South Africa some two weeks ago. According to the Ministry of Health and Population, two men – a 71-year-old Nepali and a 66-year-old foreigner– tested positive for the new coronavirus variant, which has been termed as a “Variant of Concern” by the World Health Organisation (WHO). The health officials said the foreigner, who has not been identified, had come to Nepal by air on November 19 and had produced a recent negative PCR report upon arrival. It is learnt that the Nepali national, whose identity has also been kept secret, had come into close contact with the foreigner.
Both of them started showing symptoms of coronavirus infection on November 23 and later tested positive for Omicron, which, according to WHO, is the third wave. It is said to be milder than the Delta variant that killed more people in Nepal than the first one, which was detected in early February 2020. The health officials were quick to trace 66 other people who had come into contact with the two. But all of them tested negative. The samples were tested at the National Public Health Laboratory. The ministry said the infected persons are now staying in quarantine, and the health officials are monitoring their health.
The health officials were able to detect the new variant as they had set up a new protocol that requires gene sequencing of all the samples that tested positive for COV- ID. The new protocol was helpful in detecting the new variant. As India has so far reported 21 cases of Omicron in different states, where most migrant Nepalis have been working, the rising cases of infection in India could easily spread in Nepal as well due to the porous border. However, based on the preliminary reports, scientists have forecast that due to its milder nature compared to the Delta variant, existing vaccines could help prevent hospitalisation.
Indian scientists say although the new variant shows a high rate of transmissibility, its severity is less than the Delta variant.
The Health Ministry has swung into action to increase surveillance and tests as Omicron is said to spread faster than the second variant. Omicron has so far been detected in 36 countries, and 574 people have contracted it across the world. Even if the new variant is said to be milder than the Delta one, people should follow the prescribed health protocols – wearing a facemask, maintaining social distance, washing hands, using sanitisers, staying in well-ventilated rooms, taking part in the vaccination campaign and avoiding gathering – to keep the new variant at bay.
December is a busy wedding month. So, it is advised to avoid large gatherings as much as possible. At the same time, the government should also increase its surveillance along the open border with India from where a large number of people cross the border without the negative PCR reports. The best way to keep the virus under control is to expedite vaccination of all eligible people and also initiate a booster dose at the earliest. As we cannot afford yet another lockdown, we need to follow the health protocol that is in place since last year.
MBBS in Jumla
It is indeed heartening to see the Karnali Academy of Health Sciences (KAHS) in remote Jumla take in its first batch of students for the MBBS course. The KAHS runs its own 300-bed hospital, to think that the Institute of Medicine at Maharajgunj, the country’s first, got its own teaching hospital only in 1982. This year, it is admitting 20 students for the MBBS degree, 15 of whom have received full scholarship. The academy is a milestone in Nepal’s medical education and health care in a region where development has eluded its people in all sectors.
The start of the undergraduate course in medicine should enhance the locals’ access to both health education and health care. Hospitals and medical colleges are heavily concentrated in the capital, and over the years, the government has been trying to disperse them to different parts of the country for balanced development of the health sector. To prevent the commercialisation of medical education, the government has also put a cap on the fees colleges can charge their students. If government-run hospitals and colleges like the Karnali Academy of Health Sciences could come up outside the capital, both health care and education should become affordable for the people.
A version of this article appears in the print on December 8, 2021 of The Himalayan Times.