Criminal waste

The government seems to be pouring hundreds of crores of rupees on nutrition programmes with little benefit for children. It has been providing oral vitamin A and de-worming tablets for children between six months and five years of age through its health centres.

This programme was based on studies that had claimed that child mortality could be reduced by 20-30 per cent through administration of oral vitamin A and that de-worming children would eliminate intestinal worms, thus helping children gain weight. However, a study published in a recent issue of The Lancet indicates that the benefits are not quite as dramatic as earlier claimed. This study, which was done five years ago on two million children in Uttar Pradesh over a five year-period found that child mortality reduced by a mere 4 per cent among those given vitamin A supplements. The benefits due to de-worming were almost negligible.

Although the findings of this study were published only recently, it appears that experts have been raising the issue with the government for some years now and calling on it to replace the vitamin A Supplementation (VAS) with dietary alternatives. A group of experts had apparently advised the government in 2005 to provide vitamin A supplements only to children in the 9 months to 3 years age group. However, the government is believed to have spurned their advice and persisted with providing all children under-5 with the tablets, although there is little benefit to be had from them. Clearly, resources are being wasted. It is possible that vested interests in the pharmaceutical industry are pushing the government to supply the vitamin supplements despite their questionable impact. In fact, a ‘vitamin A lobby’ is believed to have delayed the publishing of the findings of the study. It is a criminal waste of public money and those officials hand-in-glove with the lobby should be held accountable.

A leading cause of blindness in the country, vitamin A deficiency among India’s children is high. Hitherto the government took the soft option of providing mega doses of vitamin capsules to children. As the Lancet study points out this is not beneficial. It does seem that the way to tackle vitamin and other deficiencies is to turn to advice that our grandmothers gave us i.e. provide children with nutritious food and balanced meals rather than capsules. It is not pharmaceutical companies but farms that provide us with solutions to vitamin and other deficiencies.  

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