Kathmandu, Dec 17: The government has already decided to provide booster doses to citizens above 60 years of age who have been given the Vero Cell vaccines against COVID-19.
It has made preparation to administer the additional dose as well as the booster dose to all the citizens after vaccinating 50 per cent of the total population. So far 39 per cent of the population has been given the first dose and 31 per cent the full dose vaccines.
RSS' Chief Reporter Krishna Adhikari and Reporter Sharad Sharma talked with Minister for Health and Population Birodh Khatiwada in this connection.
Asked whether a booster dose was still necessary for addition to the additional dose, the Health Minister stressed that a booster dose would be required if the COVID-19 pandemic further spreads. The booster dose is given to those persons who have been administered both doses after six months of the second dose. The government is ready to give the booster dose to the citizens in case the pandemic continues to spread. The government is in a ready position at the policy and practical level to provide the booster dose.
"We will give the booster dose only after 50 per cent of the total population is given the full dose. But if the pandemic occurs in between then we give the booster dose immediately. However, if the pandemic subsides, the booster dose would be given when 50 per cent of the population is vaccinated. We have not fixed the date for this as yet," he said.
According to the Health Minister, he has already consulted with Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba regarding the booster dose and he (the PM) has given the go-ahead for this. Minister Khatiwada said the World Health Organization (WHO) has recommended giving the booster dose to only the senior citizens, chronic patients, heart patients and those suffering from kidney diseases but not mandatorily to the general public.
The Health Minister shared that the COVID-19 vaccine is to be administered to children from 12 to 17 years of age by setting up vaccination centres at each school from December 19.80 per cent of people in urban areas vaccinated, only 35 per cent in rural areas
When asked whether the government had any plan of giving vaccines at the doorstep of the people itself in the context of the target communities not being much interested and only 186 thousand people turning up for vaccination daily, the Minister said more than 80 per cent of people have had the COVID-19 jabs in the urban area while only 35 per cent have done so in the rural area.
"We still have seven million doses of vaccines while 35 million is in the pipeline. People have not come forward for the vaccination. Before this, we had provided the vaccines focusing only on the districts. But we don't know why the people in the rural areas were not so enthusiastic to get vaccinated – whether it's due to lack of awareness or negligence, we don't know," Health Minister Khatiwada said, adding that the government would not sit mum just because people are not turning up for vaccination in expected numbers in the rural areas.
He said that the government will expand the number of vaccination centres to 16 thousand from 6,000 from this week. He hoped that people will certainly turn up in large numbers for the vaccination after vaccination centres are taken closer to their doorsteps. "We will reach the individual local level wards for vaccination like the government did for conducting the National Census if even the 16 thousand vaccination centres are not sufficient," he added.
On government's preparation to contain Omicron variant
In his response to the RSS query about the government plan and preparations to act against the newly-detected ‘omicron’ variant of COVID-19, the Minister said now the virus and its implications were not completely strange for us as in the very beginning of its outbreak. The vaccine was not invented Nepal had done its best in regard to the containment and treatment of the virus when the world was alarmed by it. “We were struggling for sufficient supplies of oxygen. Now the situation is different. We have managed small to big oxygen plants.”
According to the Minister, health facilities are equipped with oxygen support systems. Oxygen plants of 10,000 litres plants have been established. The provision of the exemption of customs duty and a subsidy has been implemented to encourage the private sector for oxygen production. The strengthening of the health system has been the government priority for the past one and a half years. Every health centre has met the minimum requirement for human resources and. The number of ICU and ventilator-supported beds has been increased.
The Health Minister went on to say that people who returned from aboard have been made to stay in quarantine. “We hope the situation would not be alarming as in the past when the vaccination coverage is encouraging.” The hospital and health workforce are prepared to deal with untoward challenges in the future. Help desks have been set up at 16 locations along with the Nepal-India border points. People’s movement into the country will be controlled if the situation does suggest a challenge. In Nepal, two people were diagnosed with the infection of Omicron variant, but now they are recovered, the Minister adds.
The Health Minister assured that those health employees who are yet to receive the COVID-19 allowance would be given once the Finance Minister releases the budget for the same. “We have demanded over Rs 4.5 million from the Finance Minister.”
He said 500 beds had been added in the Bir Hospital. The government was preparing to increase the capacity of hospitals. The budget for the health sector had been increased for the same. “The government is committed to ending the situation compelling patients to queue for hours to receive the services from government health facilities.”
When asked did he think about any policies, plans and programmes to implement the concept of socialism through the media sector in Nepal, the Health Minister described socialism as a system of ensuring all’s equitable access to every state opportunities and facilities. He said the government was preparing to make health insurance free. Free medical treatment has been ensured for senior citizens and for people from the indigent community being based on the identity card.
Likewise, financial support has been guaranteed for patients with chronic illness and in case of some chronic diseases, treatment is free in the government facilities, as the Minister told. “Yet the given facilities are not enough, we are working on the possible plans to do more.”
The Minister admitted that people’s attraction to health insurance scheme was awaited and this was the weaknesses on the part of local representatives and of the bodies concerned.
“We have yet to make people aware of the importance of the scheme. The insurance is free for senior citizens and some sections of people from indigent communities. We are thinking to make it free for Dalits as well,” he added. He announced, “None will have to die for lack of treatment.” Insisting on the need to increase the capacity of government facilities, he argued that the government facilities offered subsidy and this was one of the reasons behind the flow of patients in the government hospitals.
People would not lose their lives in want of medical treatment
On infected people reportedly dying for want of timely treatment and medical treatment expenses, he said such a situation would not take place wherein people would not lose their lives without medical treatment. Hospitals have attended to patients with their capacity and workforces available. Efforts are underway to increase workforces and beds at government hospitals. They are also cost-effective. Bir Hospital will add 500 beds.
About plans to strengthen health services at provincial and local levels, he said teaching hospitals and health institutes in all seven provinces would be open. Work is underway to equip old hospitals and increase their bed capacity. Five to 15 beds hospitals at the local level are being constructed.
When asked about the government's plan to manage free or concessional medical education for those pursuing medical education, the minister said at present, the government was bearing educational bills of the students who have got scholarships. Scholarship quotas have been allocated for qualified and hardworking students.
On malpractices (if any) seen in the health sector and his efforts to stem them, the minister said there was a situation wherein responsible persons have failed to do their duty. They have to do their duty sincerely. Big hospitals lack enough beds. Black marketeering in medicines has taken place, which should be curbed.
About efforts done to prioritize alternative medical systems, the minister said that work was on opening naturopathy health facilities across the country. Workforces are being produced. The state has accepted, protected and encouraged alternative medical systems including Ayurveda and naturopathy.