Healthy children build healthy nations

Our country is home to the largest child population in the world. A substantial 41 per cent, around 450 million, are children. But it is incongruent that for their education, health and protection a paltry 4 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) is being spent. A great deal of political and social will is required to prioritise children in budgetary allocations.

On health, it has been observed that among the general category of patients in public hospitals, about 70 per cent were once child labourers. This percentage rose to 80 per cent in the case of tuberculosis. Constant exposure to smoke, dust, noxious gases, chemicals and high temperatures affects the lungs, eyes, and other vital organs of children. By letting manufacturers exploit them as inexpensive labour, the government is inheriting an army of sick and invalid persons in the years to come. The working children of today are virtually the liabilities of tomorrow. A large portion of the government’s budgetary allocation will have to be accorded for health care and reparations in the foreseeable future. This will have a crippling effect on the development agenda. Such oversight should be condemned strongly by all opinion holders.

Dismal health indicators

Several years ago, I travelled to villages in Mandsaur district in Madhya Pradesh along with the Chair of the National Human Rights Commission. What I witnessed there was beyond belief. The men, who had once been child labourers in slate pencil mining, had passed away due to a form of occupational lung disease called silicosis. The villages were wholly occupied by widowed women and children with hardly any old men. Similarly, I came across many young patients of psittacosis, an incurable disease that often affects workers in the carpet and woollen industries. Due to the lack of research in this field, most doctors would diagnose these diseases as tuberculosis or other respiratory infection and hence, fail to rescue the victims.

There were enormous gaps in our knowledge about the exact health situation of children as related to the labour circumstance they were stuck in. This problem still persists today.

We have been unable to assess the health impact — physical, social and mental — of the trauma of exploitative labour or trafficking in children. The government must conduct investigation to explore the nature of trauma so that corrective measures can be taken.

The health indicators of children in India are among the worst in the world with only 65.3 per cent of the under-five children fully immunised. Eighty per cent of the children under three years of age are anaemic and every 3 out of 5 children are malnourished. Over nine lakh children in India die before their first birthday. Data also suggest that India accounts for nearly 50 per cent of child brides in the world who are married before the age of 15 — threatening their personal well-being, development and, most often, their fundamental rights to health, education and freedom. What’s more, the air quality in northern India has reached an alarming stage. There is a strong link between pollution and children’s cognitive function. Early exposure to toxic air has lifelong consequences for them.

A more concrete road map

To amend the state of affairs, it is imperative we make significant improvements in the provisions for care of children and adolescents. First and foremost, the Ministry of Health needs to forge stronger partnerships with the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Labour, Education, and other agents involved with children, since the largest determinants of health remain beyond their administration. Also, creating a shared value of children’s health across the various sectors is critical, even though structurally challenging to accomplish.

There is, in fact, no better state than vulnerability to be innovative. Innovation is an evolutionary process and to create a better future, we need to think more creatively with a committed focus on our children and youth. For all children to have an equal opportunity at realising their full potential, innovation must not only benefit those who can afford it but reach and meet the needs and rights of those who are the most marginalised and invisible.

For instance, warranted within the law should be a provision for treatment of poor children at zero cost at all hospitals. The lack of facilities, rampant corruption, negligence and inhumane attitude of workers at government hospitals makes it very difficult for the economically deprived to avail the necessary treatment. The expense in consulting a private hospital is too costly for them and out of reach. Therefore, private hospitals must be given the mandate to provide free health services to those in need.

There are some aspects such as central planning through schools which should fall under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health in alignment with State education boards. Schools are the building grounds for a child’s overall development. Their function should not be restricted to education alone. Ideally, schools should facilitate regular health check-ups, vaccination programmes and provide easy medical access to students.

We need a more concrete and compassionate road map to ensure that every child is safe and protected. This requires changes in resource allocation for right interventions and creation of platforms for integrated cross-sectoral approach, thus propelling healthy development. Information and technology should be used proactively to make progress in the medical field. They can be adapted to maintain a central repository of health records, bring down health welfare cost, provide distance consultation and educate and empower poor people against diseases so that our children can remain healthy and happy.

Generally, a child who enjoys a better state of health during childhood will become a healthy adult. We need action from all stakeholders for the preservation and development of our children. One of the most powerful preventive measures to ensure a long and healthy life for children is immunisation.

A little investment in healthy childhoods will shape the future of a healthy nation.

Kailash Satyarthi is a Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder, Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation.

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Printable version | Oct 18, 2020 7:41:52 PM |

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