“Maternal and child health indicate the robustness of our health sector”

Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Ghulam Nabi Azad on Thursday accorded due appreciation to the fact that the country’s under-five mortality rate has declined much faster than the global average, but agreed that the challenge was to bring down neonatal mortality.

Speaking at the inauguration of a national summit ‘Call to Action — Child Survival and Development,’ Mr. Azad noted with pride that there was a quantum jump in the annual rate of decline in the recent past. Also, the decline in child deaths in rural areas and in the States with weak health indicators was both sharp and steady.

However, reduction of neonatal mortality, which accounts for about 55 per cent of the country’s under-five mortality, would be a crucial test for the country. In this context, the national Call to Action summit could be perceived as a significant step towards translating the commitment into action. Collectively, he said, it would be possible to bend the curve on child mortality, though it would by no means be easy.

The Union government on Wednesday launched the Rashtriya Bal Swasthya Karyakram to provide for universal health screening of children and early intervention services. A total of 27 crore children, between birth and 18 years, would be checked for birth defects, diseases, deficiencies, and developmental delays. Children who were diagnosed with any of the specified illness would be treated free of cost, including surgery, under the National Rural Health Mission, Mr. Azad said.

“To my mind, maternal and child health indices are the most sensitive markers of the robustness of our health delivery as a whole,” he said. Any well-functioning health system cannot and should not allow deaths of mothers and children from causes which were easily preventable.

United States Ambassador Nancy Powell said the polio success story (two years of polio-free status) had shown what India was capable of. The summit was an occasion to discuss how “we could all work together to ensure that children live till their fifth birthday.”

Talking about high impact interventions, the Mission Director, National Rural Health Mission, Anuradha Gupta, said India’s under-five mortality rate declined faster than the global average at 48.7 per cent. To reach the required the Millennium Development Goal of 31 deaths by 2015, the required annual rate of decline should be 7.1 per cent.

Some States had touched the 7 per cent mark, and had, in fact, steamed ahead. For instance, Tamil Nadu had a remarkable decline of 12.5 per cent, and Karnataka, 9.1 per cent. To sustain the rate of decline, she said, there should be improved coverage of nutrition programmes. Special care for newborns, providing skilled care in labour and delivery, managing pneumonia and diarrhoea, improving immunisation and promoting breastfeeding are certain high impact interventions the government was considering, Ms. Gupta said.

Union Minister of State for Health S. Gandhiselvan said the challenge was particularly formidable in India because of the vast numbers.

Robert E. Black from Johns Hopkins School of Public Health said child mortality had declined 35 per cent globally in the last decade, but high rates persisted in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia (both together contribute 82 per cent of the global child deaths). Two-thirds of them were due to preventable or treatable infectious diseases.