Dying young


India is not doing enough to protect its newborns. A nationwide survey has indicated that one infant dies every 15 seconds in the country. Some 4,00,000 infants die in the first 24 hours of their life. The country’s infant mortality rate is the worst in the world. Seventy-two infants of every 1,000 live births die in this country. In some states, the situation is truly worrying. In Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh for instance, the infant mortality rate is 94 and 92 deaths respectively per 1,000 live births. What is particularly distressing is that most of these deaths were preventable. Ninety per cent of the infants who die within 24 hours of their birth do so of treatable illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhoea. A closer look at the figures indicates that nationwide, mortality of girl infants is far higher than that of boys, with only Kerala and Tamil Nadu bucking this trend. It does seem that India will not be able to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) of halving infant mortality by 2015.

An important reason for the high rate of infant mortality in the country is the fact that pregnant mothers are not given the medical care and nutrition they need. Malnutritioned mothers give birth to weak and unhealthy babies. The babies’ chances of survival have been undermined even before they are born. We need to recognise that the roots of high infant mortality lie in gender bias and tackle this. Besides, public health facilities are poor. Especially in rural India where hospitals are far away, babies are delivered at home in conditions that are not hygienic. Infants catch infections easily. And in the absence of immediate professional medical attention, these babies simply die. It appears that tetanus is one of the main reasons for neonatal morbidity. Vaccination of pregnant mothers against tetanus should be taken seriously.

Infant mortality has declined over the decades in India. Nevertheless, mortality rates are still too high. It is not a lack of resources that stands in the way of India reducing infant mortality — countries with less resources in India’s neighbourhood have tackled the problem more effectively — but the absence of political will. Investment in public health facilities is clearly not enough. An eight per cent economic growth rate is meaningless when we are unable to give our infants even a chance at life.

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