India, the second most populous country in the world, is known for her rich, vibrant culture and civilization that has spanned thousands of years. Over the last two decades, India’s economy has grown at breakneck speed becoming the world’s 10th largest economy in 2011 and is projected to be among the fifth largest by 2050 (per a recent report by economic think-tank Centre for Economics and Business Research). Yet despite the enormous economic success of the “Elephant“, as India has been sometimes called, tragically a large percentage of the Indian population have been left behind.
Millions of Indians live in dire poverty especially the people who have left the villages and have come to the urban centers searching for a better life. According to the World Bank, rural and urban poverty in India remains painfully high, holding the unfortunate record of having the largest concentration of poor people in the world: 240 million rural poor and 72 million urban poor. With poverty, an immeasurable suffering has also taken hold. Hunger, malnutrition and a high level of preventable diseases and death have struck India’s poor and have unfairly impacted women and children.
It was with this general knowledge and understanding of the global health situation in India that founder of Mom Bloggers for Social Good, Jennifer James and I spent our last day in India with Save the Children to learn more about what they are doing on the ground in India to save lives. We would first met with staff at Save the Children’s India headquarters in Delhi where we would gain an overall view of their current strategy in India and afterwards we would do a field visit to one of the unauthorized slums to see firsthand Save the Children’s work.
Per Save the Children an alarming 1.6 million children in India die before the age of 5. If we break that figure down that means 309,000 babies die each year in India which is 29% of the global total (per the State of World Mothers report 2013). India is not an easy place to be a mother either. A decade ago close to 75,000 women died during childbirth every year. Although that number has been reduced to 56,000 in 2010, it is still way too high, especially given the tragic fact that many of these deaths are preventable.
After our meeting at the office, it was time to get out and see some of Save the Children’s amazing, innovative operations on the ground in the heart of one of Delhi’s most impoverished slums: The Indira Kalyan Camp which lies within the Okhla Industrial Area, home to over 3,000 industrial units making garments, leather, pharmaceuticals, plastics and packaging products. Unfortunately the existence of such a wide variety of industrial manufacturing plants all in one place brings in people, most from the rural parts of India, who have come to India’s capital in search of a job and a better life.
With no place to live, there has been an explosion of unauthorized slums throughout Delhi including many unauthorized slums like the Indira Kalyan. Per Save the Children, In a city of over 16 million people, it has been estimated that more than half of the population live in unplanned settlements ranging from slum clusters to urban villages, where they do not have access to basic health care, running water and sanitation. Without such essential services, the families within the slums and in particular the children, are susceptible to various diseases and illness that are highly preventable but often deadly.
Although I have seen poverty throughout my international travels and global volunteer work, I had never been through a slum. Our field visit to the Indira Kalyan Camp was not for the faint at heart. Within the slum, there were countless numbers of families living in dire conditions. Trash could be found packed high along the nonexistent sidewalks. Open defecation was a constant reminder of the lack of toilets and dignity that the people face on a daily basis. Housing was basic at best and very cramped. Furthermore the unbearable heat of 120 degrees Fahrenheit with no running water or showers was unimaginable. Life in the Indira Kalyan Camp is extremely hard. Yet there was one shining light of hope. The MHU: Mobile Health Unit (a big white Save the Children van that houses a mobile clinic) that was parked alongside the street.
Launched in June 2010 as part of Save the Children’s multi-pronged plan “Bringing Healthcare to the Doorstep“, Mobile Health Units (MHU) are the ingenious response to saving lives. Each MHU is a real live mobile clinic housing 2 Medical offices, an Axillary Nurse Midwife, a pharmacist, a lab technician, a driver and a helper. There are six fully equipped MHUs in rotation that are providing basic health care services to 10 slum clusters in Delhi reaching out to a total of 600,000 people. The majority of the services provided are in the areas of reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health and nutrition, with a focus on women and children who are at most risk of dying from preventable causes.
Save the Children’s “Bringing Healthcare to the Doorstep” initiative has already been a huge success. Since the June 2010 launch, MHU have already reached out to more than 340,000 patients and have enrolled nearly 12,000 women for ANC check-ups. In a nation that spend on average less than 1% of its GDP on healthcare, unfortunately the poor of India are often the ones to be neglected and not receive the care they need to thrive and survive.
Save the Children also partners with other NGOs and collaborates with the government to ensure success of their programs and save lives.
Per Save the Children’s 2013 State of World Mother’s Report: “If all newborns in India experienced the same survival rats as newborns from the richest Indian families, nearly 360,000 more babies would survive each year”. Mobile Health Units are helping erase and change this tragic reality. No child should have a lesser opportunity at life due to where he or she was born.
Our visit to the Mobile Health Van included a thorough explanation of the services they provide. One important service is to monitor the growth rates of newborn babies. When a mother arrives at the van with her baby, the baby is weighed and tracked on a growth chart as seen in the photo below. If the growth rate falls into the red area, then the baby is dangerously malnourished and sent to the hospital right away.
Inside the van, pregnant women receive prenatal check-ups and infants and children receive regular check-ups and treatment for illnesses. The van also has a lab technician and x-ray machine for easy diagnosis of routine illnesses. What I found truly amazing is that the van contains a pharmacy as well with over 180 kinds of medications available free of charge.
As we left the van and prepared to enter the slum for our next visit with Frontline Health Care workers, there were still lines and lines of mothers waiting with their children. I realized that this program has only been available for two years. Before that time, these people had absolutely nothing. I thought of a quote I had recently read in the Hindustan Times by Indian journalist Poonam Muttreja:
“Despite all the progress, wide disparities and inequalities in women’s access to healthcare persist. Sadly access largely depends on where one lives, how educated one is, how rich and which community one belongs”.
Thankfully organizations like Save the Children are working to change this inequity and make the world a better and more just place for all.
Stay tuned…My next post on India will discuss our meeting with the Frontline Health Care workers on the ground working in the Indira Kalyan Camp.