Alcohol ban hits TB testing in eastern India

PATNA: Doctors in eastern India can no longer test patients for the deadly lung disease tuberculosis (TB) after authorities imposed a ban on the sale of alcohol, impacting the supply of spirits for medical use, health officials said on Monday.

Nitish Kumar, chief minister of Bihar state, instituted prohibition in April last year after his party won local polls backed by large numbers of women voters who demanded he ban alcohol, blaming its consumption for rising domestic violence.

But health officials in Bihar say the ban has also meant that other types of alcohol and spirits - essential for conducting tests and disinfecting equipment - are no longer available in the state.

"So far, we were using the old stock of alcohol and spirits to conduct tests but now, they too have run short completely. We are unable to conduct any TB test until we get the fresh stock," said Bihar's Communicable Diseases Officer Ganesh Prasad.

"Their scarcity is now bound to hit the TB diagnosis program but we are helpless," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that substitutes had proved ineffective.

Despite progress over the past two decades, TB infected 9 million people and killed 1.5 million in 2013, according to the World Health Organization.

India has one of the world's highest caseloads of TB - a bacterial disease spread through coughing and sneezing. Government data shows there were over 1.7 million cases in 2016 - more than 5 percent of them from Bihar.

Health officials said that in Patna, Bihar's capital, around 40,000 TB tests were conducted annually, but that many of the state's almost 800 laboratories had run out of the methylated spirit and ethanol required to conduct the tests.

Some officials denied there was a serious problem saying it was a simple misunderstanding with the new law.

Bihar's TB Program Officer K N Sahay said the health department had taken the issue up with the excise department and hoped that stocks would reach them soon.

Bihar is the fourth Indian state after Gujarat, Nagaland and Mizoram to impose a blanket ban on liquor.

The law imposes a fine of up to one million rupees ($15,670) and a sentence of up to 10 years for anyone found guilty of consuming or selling alcohol. A death sentence may be given if a person is convicted of providing poisonous home-made liquor which causes death.