Image: India swine flu
Rajanish Kakade  /  AP
Young devotees, wearing masks as a preventive measure against swine flu, watch a human pyramid during celebrations marking the birthday of Hindu God Krishna, in Mumbai, India, on Friday.
updated 8/14/2009 4:22:40 PM ET 2009-08-14T20:22:40

The streets of the western city of Pune were half-empty, schools in Mumbai were ordered closed, and people suffering aches flooded hospitals across the country as India confronted dueling outbreaks of swine flu and swine flu panic.

Twenty-one people have died from the flu here, the government said Friday, and 1,390 have been confirmed infected in this nation of 1.2 billion people. But fear of the flu has outpaced the virus itself.

"The amount of frenzy or hysteria is totally disproportionate to the overall reality of the disease," Dr. Jai Narain, the head of the regional communicable disease office for the World Health Organization, said Friday.

Media's role
Breathless reports of swine flu have dominated India's 24-hour news channels desperate for stories amid the August doldrums. That in turn has helped whip the public into a frenzy, even in cities with relatively few cases of flu.

In New Delhi, where no deaths have been reported, people have begun wearing surgical masks in the street. In Lucknow, parents demanded their children be tested.

"Over 1,000 people lined up at different hospitals. ... Eleven of them tested positive," Dr. R.R. Bharati, a top health official in the northern city of Lucknow said earlier this week.

In Mumbai, the country's financial capital, the government closed all schools and movie theaters, hammering the Bollywood film industry over the long Independence Day holiday weekend. The government also asked malls in Mumbai to tone down their traditional holiday sales to keep away crowds.

The nearby city of Pune is India's worst affected, with 13 of the country's 21 deaths.

There, the streets were half-empty, the usual crowds shunned the shopping malls and many workers stopped showing up at offices. With schools closed, worried parents kept their children shut inside.

Many who did venture out wore surgical masks, despite a shortage that sent the price of a single mask skyrocketing from 5 rupees (10 cents) to 150 rupees ($3).

"The situation in Pune is alarming considering the number of ... positive cases and deaths. We are augmenting the resources in the city to handle the situation. However, we appeal to people not to panic," said Chandrakant Dalvi, a city official.

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Government’s response
In response to the outbreak, India's government has set up testing centers around the country and plans to increase its stock of the anti-viral drug Tamiflu to 30 million doses, the government said. But officials have also asked people to stop wearing surgical masks in the street unless they or a family member are infected.

"I cannot see anything to panic about," said Dr. Jayaprakash Muliyil, a professor of epidemiology at Christian Medical College in Vellore. "These kinds of rumors are not good for the health of the nation."

The fatality rate from the virus is relatively low, though scientists worry it could eventually mutate into a more deadly strain, he said.

Yet the flu has garnered far more attention than India's raft of other health problems, including tuberculosis, which kills nearly 1,000 Indians every day, according to World Health Organization figures.

In Pune, more than 11,000 people lined up to be tested for the swine flu virus Thursday and 73 tested positive, Mahesh Zagade, a city official, told reporters.

"I think we are suffering a psychological disorder. We keep asking each other if we feel sick, cold, have a body ache, fever or breathlessness," said a 25-year-old man waiting to be tested in Pune who identified himself as Aditya. "I called up my doctor this morning and told him that I felt like I was suffocating."

The entire staff at one pharmacy donned gloves and masks after hearing a pharmacist was among those killed by the virus.

"We were planning to shut down, but we know we can't do that because people here need medicine," said Anand Agarwal, the 42-year-old pharmacist.

According to the World Health Organization, there were 177,457 cases of swine flu and 1,462 deaths across the world as of August 12.

After more than a week of feverish coverage of India's outbreak, some news organizations are now counseling calm.

"Stop the panic," urged the Hindustan Times.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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