Friday, March 25, 2011

Do we need polio campaigns when there are urgent public health issues that need attention?

Since 2004, there has been no case of polio in Tamil Nadu. Despite that, the State has continued with the pulse polio campaign from 2004 till date. This, according to Sheela Rani Chunkath, chairperson and managing director, Tamil Nadu Industrial Investment Corporation Ltd, who was speaking at the inaugural of the PII-UNICEF workshop conducted to sensitise journalists to issues concerning children and women.

Chunkath stressed there were many more urgent public health issues than polio; even many more deaths from traffic accidents during 2000-10, for instance. Everything had to be done with a sense of proportion, she said, and pointed to multinational pharmaceutical companies who wanted to sell their medicines in the Indian market that was open for grabs, rather than addressing more pressing issues such as malnutrition and diabetes that resulted in many deaths.

A simple HBA 1C test for diabetes, Chunkath pointed out, was good enough to judge the sugar levels of people. But hardly anybody knew this, she said, adding that enough was not being done to educate people about illnesses such as diabetes.

Touching on aspects of social development issues concerning women, Chunkath said that there was no data on maternal deaths or on infant mortality, no facilities for emergency obstetric care when women did in fact visit the local hospitals. Tamil Nadu, she emphasised had one of the best public health systems and “the government can do anything if it sets its mind to it”. She was, however, not for government hospitals adamant on 100 per cent institutionalised delivery for providing incentive; there was no harm in babies being born at home, but the incentive should still be given, she said.

“Institutionalised delivery is working in Tamil Nadu. Men have no idea about the trauma of birth; there’s no empathy for women,” she said, and referred to the Birth Companion programme she had introduced where every woman had a companion while delivering a child. She rued the stamping out of traditional birth behaviour (delivery of babies at home), and the dying skills of the dai, the traditional birth attendant.

Dwelling on the aspect of female infanticide, Chunkath said that from 1995 there were no details as to how many children had been killed as a result. During her term as State health secretary, she had embarked on a vigorous campaign to stamp out the practice in districts, blocks and villages, especially in areas such as Dharmapuri, Salem, Namakkal and Usilampatti where female infanticide was rampant. Chunkath termed it a post-Independence phenomenon and described its origins to the patriarchal family system where women were not allowed to light the funeral pyre, they had no inheritance rights, and were seen as incapable of looking after old parents. She was all for “shaking patriarchy” and wondered how educated doctors could be so insensitive and send women to scan centres that were doing roaring business. “Abortion is legal in India but you cannot unleash it on women. No doctor should be willing to reveal the sex of the unborn child. Educated people are the problem,” she said.

Coming to child health care, Chunkath said only allopathic drugs were administered to children in Corporation schools. Herbal (Ayurveda, Siddha) medicines can be introduced into the school health programme, medicines which could easily tackle headaches, fever, diarrhoea and dysentery. “We need validation from the West. Look within Tamil Nadu, at what resources we have. We need a strong government that looks at people’s interest,” she said.

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