The media storm and the government action on the A(H1N1) flu are warranted, but should not steps to meet infant mortality and malnutrition become national priorities, too?

Since August 4, 2009, when the death of a girl from the A(H1N1) flu was reported in Pune, the insatiable media coverage has kept alive public interest in and fear over the epidemic.

The panic over the spread of the flu is understandable. The media obsession is predictable. This is a new strain of the flu; fear of the unknown and the global scale of its reach make for compelling news. The information overdrive has fuelled public awareness of the issue, helping to dispel many half-truths and myths. This is the positive spin-off. The media interest has also kept the government on its toes, forcing it to act, or at least be seen to be responding to the epidemic with alacrity.

It is easy to draw the inference that the flu has thus far only affected the well-off and reasonably well-off sections of society, and hence the public furore. Seven children have died of A(H1N1) flu in India since the first case was reported on May 16. Their death could possibly have been prevented with timely diagnosis and early treatment. The public anger is understandable. And the media quite rightly highlights the loss of young lives and the risk of children being particularly susceptible to the flu.

However, there is another tragedy that quietly unfolds on a daily basis across villages and towns in India but receives scant or no attention. According to government sources, in India 45 children die every hour due to respiratory infections. One child dies every two minutes due to diarrhoea. Annually in India, about two million children below the age of five die mainly from preventable causes: that is, thousands of children die every month of diseases that are easily treatable and even preventable.

Yet, this news hardly causes a ripple, leave alone a media storm. There is no palpable public outrage at this needless loss of lives. On the other hand, despite the fact that so far 74 persons have died of the flu in India (the number has risen to 102) and the spread of the A(H1N1) virus has been restrained, the epidemic has attracted publicity disproportionate to its severity.

Drawing a parallel between the media attention on the flu and the lack of it on deaths due to diarrhoea among young children is an easy stick to beat the fourth estate with.

But, have we become so inured to statistics that we no longer care about them?

Almost 50 per cent of children below the age of five in India are malnourished, accounting for nearly 40 per cent of the world’s malnourished children. Malnutrition stunts physical, mental and cognitive growth and makes children more susceptible to respiratory and diarrhoeal illnesses. Malnourished children are more likely to die as a result of common and easily preventable childhood diseases. The children who do manage to survive the ravages of malnutrition come to have lifetime disabilities and weakened immune systems, and are often intellectually disabled. They remain chronically vulnerable to illness.

In his Independence Day speech two years ago, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh termed malnutrition among children a matter of national shame. In his August 15 speech this year too, he reiterated his resolve to “root out” malnutrition. He said: “We will endeavour to extend the benefit of the ICDS to every child below the age of six years in the country by 2012.” But, as the appalling figures show, good intentions alone are not enough.

The world’s largest child feeding programme, the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), has not made any significant dent on the numbers of sick and malnourished children over the last 20 years or so. In Delhi alone, for example, only 45.5 per cent of children under six have access to an ICDS centre. India spends less than 5 per cent of its annual budget on children. The 2009-10 Union Budget earmarked a mere 4.15 per cent on children. This in a country where 447 million people are 18 or below. Of the total budgetary allocation on children, just 11.1 per cent is for child health schemes.

The government should be commended for taking quick action on the flu epidemic. The media too must be applauded for taking the government machinery to task for not doing enough initially when it broke out. By the same token, should not infant mortality and malnutrition be a political, indeed a national, priority? The epidemic of malnutrition is quietly wiping out generations of children and it is an emergency that needs to be tackled on a war footing. We owe it to the future of the country and our children that we invest in their well being.

( Thomas Chandy is chief executive officer, Save the Children.)

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