May 28, 2021 2:54:36 am
It was during a chance visit to a hut at Nandurbar’s Kharda village that Pushpa Valvi, an ASHA worker, came across eight-month-old Damni Pawra.
A look at the sickly baby and Valvi knew she was acutely malnourished and in immediate need of hospitalisation. But the girl’s parents refused outright, fearing that taking the child to a health facility would put both her and the family at risk of Covid-19 infection.
But after relentless persuasion by Valvi and volunteers of an NGO, the family agreed after a few days to rush Damni to the Dhadgaon rural hospital on May 21 where a preliminary check-up revealed the infant had a haemoglobin count of just two grams.
She was immediately referred to the district hospital, Nandurbar, but it took another three days for her family to be convinced about the move. Damni is now under treatment at the hospital.
However, many experts and activists believe a number of children in the region might not be as fortunate as Damni. Due to the fear of Covid, several families have simply stopped taking their malnourished children for treatment to the local Nutritional Rehabilitation Centres (NRC).
Located in North Maharashtra, Nandurbar district, largely inhabited by the tribal community, is home to some of the poorest and malnourished people in the state.
A screening drive of 1.49 lakh children under six years of age, conducted last year by the Women and Child Development department, showed that at least 15 per cent were malnourished.
According to data available with the Integrated Child Development Services till February, there were around 33,958 Moderately Underweight and 10,028 Severely Underweight children in the district.
Many of them are treated at the five NRCs and Community Treatment Centres (CTC) in the districts. These centres would, on an average, see 55-60 admissions per month during the pre-Covid times. But, the number has dropped substantially — to 13 in April and only four in May.
Four of these centres – Akkalkuwa, Taloda, Molgi and Dhadgaon – saw no admissions in May, while Navapur registered four visitors as of May 24.
UNICEF coordinator Jitendra Valvi, who lives next to the Molgi Centre, said he was used to seeing these centres milling with people before Covid. “But now, as you can see, there is not a single patient. We are ready to open the centre even if one patient comes. The centre is fully equipped with everything, including the staff,” he added.
According to Molgi village sarpanch Manoj Tadvi: “Scepticism regarding Covid is not the only reason; the lack of transportation and focus on part of the administration, and shutting down of anganwadis schools are also reasons behind the decline in the number of admissions.”
Local activists said the fear of Covid-19 has meant that a lot of children who need state help are not being brought to these centres by their guardians.
“People are risking their children’s lives by avoiding going to the district hospital out of sheer fear. Distrust in the government health system has reached a tipping point,” Narmada Bachao Andolan volunteer Priyanka Akkar, who was also instrumental in getting Damni treated, said.
Activists said the government needs to start screening children in every village to avert increased child fatality in the coming few days.
“Screening of Malnourishment, and Detection of SAM (Severe Acute Malnutrition) and MAM (Moderate Acute Malnutrition) children before monsoon is needed. This will give us the overall figure and only after this can we find out the ways to avert child fatality. The figures regarding malnourishment that we are seeing now in reports are still low… A survey will surely give us the exact figures, which would be higher,” Latika Rajput, an activist from Nandurbar, said.
“When the district is already known for child fatalities due to malnutrition, the (current) situation should have been anticipated and the administration should have worked to change things,” she added.
In private, even health officials said they believe that malnourishment might have actually increased among children due to the lockdown. A concerted drive is needed to be undertaken in the district to identify such children, they added.
“Malnourishment would have increased in children in the district during this second lockdown. We need to kick-start a screening drive before things get out of hand,” a senior health official from the district, requesting anonymity, said.
Raghunath Gavade, Chief Executive Officer of Zila Parishad, Nandurbar, said, “From June 1, as and when there will be a relaxation in curbs, we will start anganwadis and other programme for the screening of malnourished children. We will also start a special screening survey.”
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