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Kerala: Did LDF govt share health data with PHRI?

THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: A new controversy has erupted over KIRAN (Kerala Information of Residents – Aarogyam Network), a survey carried out by Kerala’s health department, with whistleblowers alleging that public health data is being shared with Population Health Research Institute (PHRI), a Canadian agency.

The Caravan, a Delhi-based magazine, has published emails exchanged by senior officials from the Kerala government — notably Rajeev Sadanandan, a top health bureaucrat who served under both LDF and UDF governments, K Vijaykumar, a professor at government medical college in Thiruvananthapuram and KR Thankappan, an emeritus professor at Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies, also in Thiruvananthapuram — with Dr Salim Yusuf, a professor at McMaster University in Canada who heads the PHRI.

In one email to Vijaykumar, published by The Caravan, Dr Yusuf reportedly says, “If the govt will agree, we can use any approach that works — including what we had for the pilot — as long as we have data transferred to PHRI every day — in fact few times a day!”

Health department denies whistleblower’s allegations, says data safe with state

The PHRI is a private foreign institute that collaborates with pharmaceutical companies on clinical trials and drug research.

The state health department has strongly denied the whistleblower’s allegations and claims that that the data it has collected is safe with the state data cell and has not been shared with anyone.

Incidentally, KIRAN, launched by the LDF government in 2018 to come up with effective plans to fight non-communicable diseases, is a clone of Kerala Health Observatory Baseline Study (KHOBS) conducted in 2012, also with the help of PHRI. KHOBS was initiated by Oommen Chandy’s UDF government but was scrapped after the Left parties, then in the opposition, cried foul over data falling into foreign hands. KIRAN shares the same objectives, scope and even the software as its aborted predecessor.

KIRAN targeted 10 lakh people in the state and was carried out by Achutha Menon Centre for Health Science Studies for the state health department. “We had sought the permission of the Centre since we thought we need an academic collaboration with PHRI for further studies by sharing the data. But the Health Ministry’ Screening Committee (HMSC) clearance was denied by ICMR. Their view was that India has the capability of data analysis and there was no need to involve a foreign agency. Since the argument of the ICMR was right, we stopped from proceeding with that. We cannot do data sharing without the permission of ICMR and the Centre,” said Dr V Raman Kutty, the then head of Achutha Menon centre.

For KHOBS’s first survey in 2012, the software was developed by the Canadian agency and was used for data collection. Referring to KIRAN, Rajeev Sadanandan, the then health secretary, said, “It was purely a state funded study. The study has been carried out successfully by the Achutha Menon Centre for the last two years. In fact we had decided to publish the data in the public domain such that everyone can have access to it. We had never discussed the second survey with the said agency”.

However, the software developed by PHRI for the first survey was used in the second survey also. This has raised suspicions that the data was being handed over to PHRI.

“Only the software was used. There was no other data sharing. At present 90% of the survey has been completed. Due to Covid we could not achieve the 100% target. The data is with the state data cell and in the state server. In 2012 we had discussion with Dr Salim Yusuf of PHRI for associating with the survey. However that survey was stopped due to the controversies. After that we never had discussions,” said Dr Bipin Gopal, state nodal officer of the survey.

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