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On children and their right to life

Deepali Gupta

Updated: April 30, 2013, 11:53 AM IST
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For many of us, diarrhoea involves a visit to the doctor, potentially uncomfortable situations, a course of medication and eating khichdi for a few days. Demonstrably, our perception of diarrhoea is directed by minimal awareness, and by having the means to tackle it swiftly.

Regrettably, the repercussions for young children can be devastating. More than 500,000 children die of diarrhoeal disease every year the world over; with almost a fourth of these deaths occurring in India. Diarrhoea is second only to pneumonia as a cause of child deaths in India. Together, these diseases kill nearly one-third of the children who die in India every year. These numbers, appalling as they are, don't take into account psychosocial factors such as suffering, treatment costs and impact on quality of life.

Children have the right to more than mere survival - to be healthy and experience the irreplaceable joys of childhood. Of equal concern are the long-term consequences. Having to focus on getting better as a primary and recurring concern, children often lack the time and/or ability to concentrate on academic work, and invest in their futures through an education.

A variety of factors make children more susceptible to these diseases, and it is the poorest that are most at risk, with low immunity, malnutrition, crowded and unhygienic living conditions and a lack of access to clean water being contributing factors. Given the host of risk factors involved, it's no surprise that prevention and treatment strategies need to be multifaceted. They include nutritious food, access to clean air and water, immunisation against these diseases, exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of life and provision of oral rehydration salts (ORS) therapy.

I recently visited Padruana, a small town in Uttar Pradesh close to the state's border with Bihar, on a visit to a free health camp. Here, I had the chance to interact with several mothers who had brought their children for check-ups. The stories were endless.

By far the most alarming was one told to me by Pratibha, who had to rush her baby to the hospital when he stopped breathing. She was convinced she had lost him. Fortunately, the doctors were able to revive him, and he later went on to make a full recovery at the hospital. While this particular story, despite its rather worrying beginning, ended on a happy note, the same can't be said for many others whose stories go unheard and unrecorded.

Treated at the right time, pneumonia responds to oral medications, whilst in the later stages it requires hospitalisation. What makes it even trickier is that it is particularly hard to recognise in infants. For poor families who only visit doctors when things become unmanageable, the threat of it being too late is only too real. Tragically, at this stage, hospitalisation often pushes already poor families into debt.

The trip to Padruana was in stark contrast to a previous one I had made to a village in the neighbouring state of Bihar. On one occasion, we happened to get caught in the rain, leading us to seek shelter in someone's house until it subsided. Looking out, I noticed a young boy singing a raucous Bollywood tune and dancing to it, completely unmindful of the deluge that had sent some of us running for cover. Upon discovering many sets of eyes directed towards him, his antics became that much more vigorous. I didn't know of this quote by Agatha Christie back then, but it sums up my sentiments at that precise moment succinctly: "One of the luckiest things that can happen to you in life is, I think, to have a happy childhood".

As adults many of us have lost the sense of idealism we once possessed. Perhaps it has come from the feeling that there are a number of uphill battles to be fought, and a kind of jadedness that these battles cant be won. One only needs to pick up a newspaper to be reminded that there is so much wrong in the world and the country today: poverty, violence against women and children, corruption. The list is endless.

But as Marian Edelman put it, "If we don't stand up for children, then we don't stand for much". If we're not outraged that children die from these preventable, treatable diseases, we should be. They should represent more than mere statistics, and for this, the first step is awareness. It's World Immunisation Week. Spread the word.
First Published: April 30, 2013, 11:53 AM IST

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