That 1.7 million children below the age of five die every year in India is a sad commentary on the state of affairs. Out of them, at least 50 per cent die within the first month of their birth. In absolute numbers, no other country records as many deaths as India. It’s true that it has considerably reduced the infant mortality rate since 1900, when the average life expectancy in India was 21. The situation is now much better than it was in 1947, the year of Independence. But the WHO figures quoted at the outset show that it has a long way to go before it can claim to have brought infant mortality under control.
China has stolen a march over India in reducing infant mortality. If China, which had a socio-economic condition like that of India six decades ago, can achieve it, there is no reason why India cannot. Even within the country, states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu have achieved better results than Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. What is required is a concerted national attempt to save the children. It is a misnomer that a sophisticated public health care system, as in Canada or Cuba, is necessary to make a dent on child mortality. Far from that, simple steps and simple procedures are all that are required to improve the health of newborn children and their mothers.
Not many people know that giving steroids to an expectant mother will dramatically increase the life expectancy of the child, for she/he will be born with a stronger lung. Similarly, handling the umbilical cord with a disinfectant and enabling the baby to have the mother’s first milk, which has high therapeutic value, will considerably improve its chances of survival. Breastfeeding, hand washing, zinc supplementation and oral rehydration salts can reduce infant mortality. The best neonatal and post-natal practices followed in some states and regions need to be popularised. Alas, vaccination against tuberculosis, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio and measles still does not cover more than 61 per cent of children.