It is well known in Vietnam that localities and management agencies are usually reluctant to make announcements when epidemics occur, fearing that it will affect their reputation and achievements in the field of health.
Some try to delay the announcement as long as possible, while others try to cover it, prohibiting media from reporting the outbreak.
Actually, at review meetings held after an epidemic ends, one of the listed reasons for its rapid and critical development, leading to huge damages and costs, is the slow response of local governments and agencies.
This tried and failed ploy is being repeated yet again with the hand-foot-mouth disease (HFMD) that has plagued Vietnam since May, despite the fact that it has already killed 81 people.
The common viral illness that usually afflicts infants and children has so far been contracted by 32,000 people, including adults, which is three times the number of afflictions recorded last year. It has hit many provinces and cities nationwide, and the southern region has been particularly hard hit.
Some localities have seen stupefying increases in the number of cases compared to last year, like Vinh Long (803 percent) and Tay Ninh (753 percent).
However, none of the affected localities have announced that the HFMD outbreak has turned into an epidemic.
Trinh Quan Huan, deputy minister of health, said with no locality making the announcement, the Ministry of Health is constrained. Under regulations, the ministry can announce a national epidemic only after at least two provinces do so locally.
In other words, all agencies and governments had been delaying a proper response to the disease, unwittingly or otherwise, until earlier this week when, at a meeting in Ho Chi Minh City, Health Minister Nguyen Thi Kim Tien urged the city's Department of Preventive Health and Environment to announce an HFMD epidemic.
"The epidemic is no longer threatening to break out, it has actually started," Tien said.
The minister's action came late, but it's still better than never, because the longer agencies and governments delay making such important announcements, the worse the situation will become.
If no epidemic is announced, it means that provincial hospitals won't be equipped with specific equipment and medication for treatment and prevention. In the end, all HFDM patients would have to be transferred to bigger hospitals, like those in HCMC, where specific medication for patients in critical condition are available.
In fact, many patients have already been transferred, crowding urban hospitals.
Dr. Truong Huu Khanh, head of the infectious diseases department of HCMC Children Hospital No. 1 told Saigon Tiep Thi that such transfers cost people a great deal of energy and money.
However, that is not the worst consequence.
Without related agencies' heightening public awareness of an epidemic, many people will not pay enough attention to it, decreasing the effectiveness of all preventive efforts and measures.
This means the likelihood of the disease growing to almost unmanageable proportions and many more people paying for the mismanagement with their lives.