Dr. Geeta Sodhi

Roadmap to Defeating Childhood Diseases: The infrastructure that helped India whip polio could be used to immunize against other preventable killers

Every day, more than 3,500 children die in India from preventable diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, malnutrition and birth complications. This World Immunization Week (April 24-30) I find myself struggling to accept that so many children continue to die when we have the tools to protect them.

Health is featured in the manifestos of the two leading political parties in India, Congress and Bharatiya Janata Party, for the current election. (The election began April 7 and is being held over nine phases until May 12, with results expected May 16.) Both have acknowledged health as a right and committed to ensuring universal quality health care for all citizens. They have also promised increased attention to child health.

This is not the first time such promises have been made and past governments have failed to deliver this basic yet critical service. Five years ago, in the 2009 elections, the Congress party guaranteed “health security for all” while the BJP committed to “health for all.” Some progress has been made, but we are still far from achieving this goal.

The Indian government spends only 1.4 percent of its GDP on health, the lowest in the group of emerging economies that includes Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa, known as the BRICS.

India has the highest number of under-age-5 deaths in the world – 1.4 million every year. According to a recent study in a leading international medical journal, Lancet, India is off-track to meet the UN Millennium Development Goal 4 target of reducing child mortality by two-thirds by 2015. It estimates that at the present rate of progress, India will only achieve this target by 2020.This average masks gender, socioeconomic and geographical inequities – with richer states in India expected to achieve this goal by 2015, and poorer states by 2023.

According to UNICEF, pneumonia and diarrhea kill more than 1,000 children every day. Treatment continues to remain out of reach for those who cannot afford it or live in remote areas where travelling to the nearest health care center means losing an entire day’s wages. This makes prevention more important than ever. We need to make sure that more parents have information about simple preventive measures such as breastfeeding, hand washing and immunization.

Despite these limitations, India has emerged as a leader in the battle to end polio. Last month, the country was declared polio free by the World Health Organization – one of the greatest public health achievements in modern history. Only five years ago, it was home to half the world’s polio cases. This success, achieved through the national immunization program and massive public health awareness campaigns, was widely celebrated by all leading national parties.

We now need to build on this legacy – of more than 2.3 million health workers and 7,000 community mobilizers – to bring protection against other diseases to our children.

All children have the right to survive, to grow up healthy and to have access to quality and inclusive education. Childhood diseases and malnutrition can cause irreparable damage to a child’s brain and lead to lifelong disabilities, impacting their ability to learn and ultimately limiting their opportunities.

The government, civil society and all communities have a key role to play in creating this change. Elected representatives will only make child health a priority when we demand that they address this issue with a sense of urgency. The government needs to increase access to immunization through the Universal Immunization Programme. Civil society can work with the government to increase awareness about its benefits among communities.

It is such partnerships that enabled India to defeat polio. If the lessons from that battle have taught us anything, it is that India can achieve anything, if it is committed to doing so.

Dr. Geeta Sodhi is the founder and director of Swaasthya Trust, a nonprofit organization that specializes in innovative, community-based programming on sexual and reproductive health, and operates in numerous states in India including Delhi, Maharashtra, Bihar, Jharkhand and Rajasthan.

This blog was first published on IBN Live.

Health Care
infectious diseases