On July 12, the Union health minister announced a National Strategic Plan to eliminate malaria by 2027. But Scroll.in has found that Andhra Pradesh is systematically under-reporting the number of malaria cases by flouting two central government norms and exercising discretion available to states in some cases. This could undermine the government’s attempt to rid the country of the disease.

The Centre has set year-wise targets for the elimination of the disease in malaria-endemic areas. The targets are predicated on current levels of malaria incidence, which is calculated on the basis of malaria cases that are confirmed by state government records.

However, Andhra Pradesh has been suppressing the number of confirmed malaria cases through three measures.

For one, as the previous story in this series reported, the state health department continues to administer chloroquine to fever patients, which reduces the chance of the malaria parasite being detected in diagnostic tests. This is in violation of guidelines set by the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme, the central agency responsible for controlling vector-borne diseases like malaria.

Two, as this story elaborates, the state does not count cases detected through Rapid Blood Tests as confirmed cases, despite the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme approving the use of the test in malaria surveillance. The state solely counts cases confirmed through blood smears tested in laboratories.

Three, even when cases have been confirmed through laboratory tests, when a patient dies due to comorbidities – an additional diseases accompanying malaria – it is at times not counted as a malaria death.

This under-reporting at Andhra Pradesh’s government hospitals is only adding on to the country-wide trend of private hospitals being slack in notifying the state agencies of malaria cases and deaths, say officials.

The undercounting of malaria cases and deaths in the state has come back into focus after 16 people died in Chaparai village in East Godavari after suffering from fever, vomiting and diarrhoea. As a previous story in this series reported, health officials rushed there on June 24 and took 59 people to the hospital. Thirty two people who were tested with Rapid Blood Tests were found positive for falciparum malaria, but only one case was confirmed as positive in the laboratory. This was enough for the government to conclude that the village did not have a malaria outbreak, when other health experts said that 32 positive Rapid Blood Tests cannot be ignored.

Admitting to the underreporting of malaria cases in India, Dr Neena Valecha, director of the National Institute of Malaria Research, said: “A poor surveillance system will be a poor indicator of the disease burden.”

Health experts say faulty data raises questions over how any national plan will allocate resources and prioritise treatment and control of the disease.

Which test gets counted?

Two weeks ago, Bhoyi Devi got a high fever. Devi is 25 years old, six months pregnant and lives in Gannavaram village in Rampachodavaram Adivasi area in the East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. She was tested for malaria at the Rampachodavaram Area Hospital.

The first simple test for malaria is a Rapid Blood Test. A drop of a patient’s blood is put on the film of paper inside in the test cassette. The paper is coated with malaria antibodies that react with malaria antigens if they are present in the blood and the results are seen as a line in the cassette window. The test is easy to perform and does not need to be administered by a trained technician.

Devi tested positive for malaria on the Rapid Blood Test. Her doctors at the government hospital immediately started treating her for malaria infection caused by the protozoan parasite Plasmodium falciparum by giving her an artemisinin-based drug combination therapy. Devi responded to the treatment and got better.

Before they had started treating her, the doctors had sent her blood samples for smear test to confirm the malaria infection at a laboratory. Surprisingly, the smear test results came back negative for malaria.

A Rapid Blood Test kit. (Photo: Menaka Rao)

The gold standard for testing malaria is looking at the smear of blood on the microscope and spotting the parasite. This test needs a good medical technician and such technicians are not always available in health centres in remote areas like the hill tracts of East Godavari district.

Keeping in mind the conditions in such areas, the National Vector Borne Control Disease changed its policy on diagnosing malaria in 2013 and allowed Rapid Blood Test results for malaria surveillance. This means that if a malaria infection shows up on a Rapid Blood Test, it must be counted and recorded.

States such as Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Karnataka and West Bengal have a policy of recording both laboratory confirmed and Rapid Blood Test diagnosed cases.

“The states have to follow the policy we set,” said Dr Neeraj Dhingra, additional director, National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme. “They get the funds from us.”

But Andhra Pradesh does not follow this protocol. While malaria cases detected through Rapid Blood Tests are treated, they are not recorded unless they are confirmed as positive in a laboratory.

“We do not record a malaria case unless it is smear positive,” said Dr Geetha Prasadini, additional director with the state’s directorate of health. “If someone tests positive on the Rapid Blood Test kit, we immediately test the smear too in the laboratory.”

Health officials in Andhra Pradesh pointed out that the Rapid Blood Test throws up positive results even if a person has been cured of malaria three months before the test was done. But Dr Neena Valecha, director of the National Institute of Malaria Research, called the test a “sturdy” diagnostic tool that is routinely reviewed by the government has a high accuracy rate.

While health officials rely only on positive smear test results for malaria, doctors working in the tribal areas of Andhra Pradesh said that they cannot wait for smear test results before they treat patients. They also do not rely entirely on smear tests to treat the patient for malaria. In the Rampachodavaram agency area where falciparum malaria is endemic, doctors simply look for tell-tale clinical symptoms of malaria.

Dr N Ramaru, a pediatrician working at the Rampachodavaram Area Hospital, said that doctors can distinguish between a viral fever and a malaria fever. Viral fever is consistent while malaria fever is intermittent. Malaria is also accompanied by chills and shivering.

“We have to give artesunate (drug to treat for falciparum malaria) to such patients even if it is slide negative,” said Ramaru. “This is an endemic area and malaria is common at this time of the year.”

Whose death counts?

Sivakumar B, a 17-year-old resident of Malasingram in Araku Valley in Visakhapatnam district of Andhra Pradesh, died on July 6. The boy had had fever for more than a week and his family took him to the largest hospital in the valley – the government-run Araku Area Hospital which is about 15 km away from his home.

The boy’s father Mukundan B said that the doctors told him that Sivakumar was suffering from malaria, typhoid and jaundice, but did not give him anything in writing.

The family of 17-year-old Sivakumar B who died with symptoms of malaria, typhoid and jaundice. (Photo: Menaka Rao)

“The doctor kept shouting at us,” he said. “But we did not understand. The second injection made his body swell up. We did not feel safe there.”

The family brought the boy home in three days, though he was still sick. Two days later, he died. There has been no investigation into whether Sivakumar died of malaria.

Many deaths, like Sivakumar’s, that occur at home are not investigated for causes or recorded. Some of this is due to an unwritten rule that doctors in the government hospitals in the Adivasi areas of Visakhapatnam and East Godavari district y they have: Do not let a patient die in the hospital.

“If the malaria gets complicated, we send the patient to the Vishakhapatnam or Kakinada (district headquarters of East Godavari) immediately,” said a government doctor from Rampachodavaram Agency in East Godavari district. “Nobody knows what happens to the patient on the way.”

The Visakhapatnam malaria officer claimed that no one has died of malaria in the district this year. The Andhra Pradesh health department too has not recorded any malaria deaths this year.

Two people tested positive for malaria and later died at the King George’s Medical University, Visakhapatnam June and July. In both cases, there were symptoms such as kidney injuries and pulmonary oedema (both known complications of malaria), sources in the hospital said. But these cases were not recorded as malaria deaths.

People who test positive for malaria died due to comorbidities or other complications, said Dr Kalyana Prasad, Visakhapatnam district epidemiologist.

As in the above case, deaths are sometimes attributed to comorbidities accompanying malaria instead of to malaria itself.

Moreover, even though malaria is a notifiable disease, which means that all hospitals must report malaria cases to the government, private hospitals hardly report malaria infections, the officials from the national programme said.

Righting wrong data

Undercounting malaria is India is not new. During the 1990s, the former head of the National Institute of Malaria Research, the late Dr VP Sharma, analysed trends in consumption of the malaria drug chloroquine and estimated that malaria was underreported somewhere between 10 and 15 times.

A 2010 study took into account verbal autopsies of 122,291 deaths in India and showed that the real malaria estimate could be as high as 2,05,000 deaths every year. The World Health Organisation’s estimated that there were only 15,000 deaths in 2006.

Dhingra of the National Vector Borne Disease Control Programme insists that, despite continued data discrepancies, the malaria control programme is on track.

“You will see that the number of cases reported will increase,” said Dhingra. “This is a normal phenomenon when you are moving towards elimination of the disease.”

This is the third part of a series on disease outbreaks in the Adivasi hamlets of Andhra Pradesh. Read the first part here and the second part here.

This reporting project has been made possible partly by funding from New Venture Fund for Communications.