Stunted nation: Bad news for India's children

Stunted nation: Bad news for Indias children

There are no magic bullets after all. That's the saddest conclusion that comes out of a five-year-study of one million children in 8,338...

stu2 There are no magic bullets after all. That's the saddest conclusion that comes out of a five-year-study of one million children in 8,338 government-supported childcare centres in villages across Uttar Pradesh. The study led by the King George Medical University, Lucknow and the University of Oxford in the UK was looking at two simple solutions public health officials had come up with to combat child mortality and growth. Solution 1: Mass administration of vitamin A. The hope was that would reduce childhood mortality by 20 to 30 per cent. Solution 2: Mass administration of the deworming tablet aldendazole every six months to all young children. The hope here was that it would eliminate intestinal worms and help children gain weight faster. Now the results are out in the medical journal Lancet. "I think these long-awaited results cast doubts on the benefits of what have been promoted as magic bullets," said paediatrician Harsh Pal Sangh Sachdev to The Telegraph. The mortality reduction was only 4 per cent. The weight gain difference after two years between those who got the deworming tablet and those who did not was 0.04 kg. Obviously, these results were not what the government was looking for. The government policy dictates all children between six months and five years get vitamin A through government health centres. Deworming campaigns are underway in several states. Is that why they were not published in a journal for 5 years? The Telegraph says the findings were first published by the newspaper in April 2008. But until a journal like Lancet publishes them they don't have policy impact. It comes at a time when there is more bad news for Indian children. Indian children are among the shortest in the world. The culprit is not just malnutrition or genetics. Indian children are shorter than Chinese. And they are shorter on average than countries in Africa which are poorer. The problem, writes researcher Dan Spears in The Hindu, might be those worms. Specifically the problem of open defecation. This is not just an eyesore that caused V S Naipaul to recoil in horror. Open defecation is actually a factor in stunting our growth. The statistics are dismal when it comes to toilets. About 53 per cent of Indian households 'usually' do not use a latrine or toilet according to the 2011 census. Of the 1.1 billion people who defecate in the open, 60 per cent live in India. Nitish Kumar's Bihar is already 'special' in this category. "No country measured in the last 10 years has a higher rate of defecation than Bihar," writes Spears. Countries like Angola, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia all clock in with lower rates of public defecation than India. The problem with trying to improve public sanitation in India is that public toilets, even when they do exist are so filthy, ill-maintained and safety hazards for women, that people are forced to use the great outdoors. About 54 per cent of urban slum dwellers have no access to any toilet. That's where the class problem kicks in writes Kalpana Sharma for OPINION
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