Vignesh is oblivious of his surroundings. The four-year-old boy, cradled in the arms of his mother, stares into vacuum. His legs and hands are loose and lifeless.
“He was like any other child till the seventh month. Now I have to carry him everywhere. He can neither walk nor talk,” says his 21-year-old mother Sathya, a Dalit.
Whether he is afflicted with polio or any genetic disorder could not be confirmed either by his mother or anyone else since there is no well-equipped hospital or a doctor around for about 25,000 people, a majority of them poor Dalits and tribals, living in a cluster of 15 villages in and around Kootathupatti, Vazhapadi block, Salem district.
Sadly, Vignesh is not the sole victim of poor healthcare facilities.
A joint micro-level study by CRY (Child Relief and You) and the Salem People Trust on the nutritional status of children in these villages reveals that a shocking 80 per cent, i.e, 291 out of 367 school-going children in the age group of 2 to 10, are underweight. The national average is 30 per cent (2008).
“The village’s primary school has on its rolls 76 children aged 6, of whom 21 have normal weight. The rest 55, including 33 girls, are underweight. Of the total 55 children aged eight, only one has normal weight,” says M. Jayam, director of the Trust.
Of the 291 underweight children, 52 are below 4 kg, 25 weigh 5 kg and 20 are below 6 kg. Eleven of them weigh less than 7 kg. A total of 188 out-of-school children in 0-5 age from 7 villages, including Anuppur, Melakadu, Vilampatti and Kootathupatti, have not been vaccinated.
Underweight and stunted growth are common deficiencies here besides the prevalence of low birth weight. And only a negligible few have been immunised under the National Rural Health Mission (NRHM).
However, 20-year-old Soundarya of Vilampatti, a remote hamlet located at the foothill of Arunoothumalai, happens to be a rare exception. Soundarya says she never takes the risk of skipping a vaccination cycle for her 11-month-old daughter. Her child has been given BCG, Polio, DTPa and Hepatitis B shots. The Village Health Nurse (VHN) is a regular visitor to the hamlet’s Dalit Arunthathiyar colony where she lives.
But not all mothers emulate Soundarya, a school dropout who was married off at the age of 16. “How can we take care of our children when we work the fields from dawn to dusk? They go to school and get mid-day meals,” says Shanthi of Kootathupatti, who has three children two of whom are underweight.
The village cluster has 3,828 children, out of the total population of 25,000. Lack of adequate healthcare facility at Kootathupatti and non-availability of potable water are main reasons behind the chronic health issues.
Villagers want the Kootathupatti Health Sub-Centre (HSC) to be upgraded to PHC. Deputy Director of Health Jagadeeshkumar points out that the HSC is functioning well with adequate staff and villagers need to make use of it. “For a PHC, we need a minimum of 30,000 population. But, I will send the proposal to the government as a special case,” he says.