When I pick up the morning newspaper, the front pages are filled with headlines describing crime and violence. But there is another headline that doesn’t often reach the front page — one that tells the story of a great effort that is underway to secure the health and prosperity of our country’s future generations.
Over the past few years, the government has taken tremendous strides in bringing health to the forefront. Part of this effort has been to ensure that every child receives vaccines to protect them from a range of infectious diseases.
When I was a child, polio was all too common, leaving many families terrified that the disease would strike at any time. Many in India, and the global community, thought this a challenge too large to surmount. Yet, through a comprehensive campaign — which enlisted celebrities, religious leaders, health workers and others — we were able to eliminate the disease from our country, an achievement recognised in 2014.
Today, several other infectious threats to our children remain. In fact, diseases like pneumonia and diarrhea account for the death of nearly 3 lakh children every year in India. Roughly speaking, this means a young life is lost every two minutes from these two diseases alone. What is most shocking is that most of these deaths are preventable through interventions, including immunisation.
Vaccines are tools that protect children from dangerous infections. They are globally recognised as one of the safest and most cost-effective medical interventions. In a country as vast as ours, with varying socio-economic realities, vaccines can ensure that all children receive protection from vaccine-preventable diseases, irrespective of where they are born. The challenge, however, is building systems that reach the most remote rural areas or crowded city centers. Vaccines cannot help protect children if they don’t reach them.
This is an important year for our country’s immunisation programme. In a recent address, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Health Minister J P Nadda announced that the immunisation coverage was increasing by almost 7 per cent each year, and currently stood at 80 per cent. The government’s Intensified Mission Indradhanush initiative aims to fully immunise 90 per cent of children by the end of the year. At the same time, the Government of India — especially officials at the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare — have been working to introduce a series of new vaccines, including two to prevent pneumonia and diarrhea, and a combination vaccine against measles and rubella.
The Measles-Rubella vaccine was launched last year through a countrywide campaign, the largest of its kind in the world. As of February 2018, the campaign had immunised over 7 crore children. In order to repeat our success with polio elimination — this time aiming for the ambitious target of eliminating measles by 2020 — we need sustained political action that prioritises the health and development of our children.
The 2018 budget outlined an initiative to alleviate a root of impoverishment for millions with the National Health Protection Scheme (NHPS), under Ayushman Bharat, the Modicare programme. By providing health insurance cover of Rs 5 lakh to over 10 crore vulnerable families, the programme is a move towards ensuring that no one goes bankrupt because they get sick.
As a member of Political Leaders Coalition for Child and Adolescent Health (PLCCAH), I have been working with some of my colleagues to uphold the cause of child health in Parliament and raise it as a talking point in several public platforms. There is an urgent need for more such dialogue.
There is no greater responsibility for a nation than to ensure the health of its children. Without action, young lives will continue to be lost. Therefore, today, more than ever before, it is imperative that each and every citizen — not just parents and teachers, but also policymakers, journalists, and civil society members — come together to ensure that our children grow up in a healthier and safer India, free from preventable disease and death.