Battling Infant Mortality in India
Priyanka Pruthi, UNICEF
MADHYA PRADESH, India (February 11, 2013) — A baby takes sharp, rapid breaths at the Special Newborn Care Unit in the Shivpuri District Hospital. Born weak and premature, at 25 ounces she weighs less than half of what she should.
It’s a tense time for her parents—left waiting for some good news at the door, they hope and pray that their daughter will make it through.
They haven’t had the chance to name her yet. A few hours later, we find out that they never will.
Madhya Pradesh is the second-largest state in India, with rich mineral resources and the largest reserves of diamonds in the country. The state is also among the main exporters of wheat in India. However, its vast expanses often remain untouched by any kind of ‘development’, and its food often doesn’t make its way to the plates of its own people. Many communities in rural areas still lack access to safe drinking water, sanitation facilities and public transport.
In a state plagued by poverty and food insecurity, the battle to save lives of low-birth-weight babies is often lost. Madhya Pradesh has the highest infant mortality rate in the country.
Making Healthcare Accessible
Straining hospitals, a dearth of health centers in rural Madhya Pradesh and difficult access to the remotest regions pulled the state into a healthcare crisis. The state government and UNICEF are trying to turn things around by setting up a chain of healthcare facilities linking rural communities to district hospitals, and establishing health centers where there are none.
Shivpuri district is one of the largest in the state, which poses challenges related to access to healthcare. According to former Shivpuri district collector John Kingsly AR, “[W]e have started sub-health centers, and delivery points for pregnant women, with technical support of UNICEF. This has worked very well in interior in areas like Chharch.”
Revamping a District Hospital
The Shivpuri District Hospital, which struggled with a shortage of staff and outdated technology, has also had a recent makeover. Now, it boasts a Special Newborn Care Unit—an intensive care unit for newborns with severe complications—an 80-bed maternity ward, and well-qualified nurses and doctors who have been drawn in from private hospitals through higher salaries.
The hospital also has an impressive 24/7 call center that services remote villages through its GPS-enabled ambulances—at no cost to patients.
Since the hospital was revamped four years ago, there has been marked progress. The Special Newborn Care Unit alone has saved more than 6,000 children. And what has set the unit apart is its ‘follow-up’ system.
UNICEF Health Specialist Gagan Gupta describes the innovations involved in the system. “Now, with technology available, even in the remotest village you have mobile phones, so we have developed an SMS system and tracking software. The government has given us these data operators in all these [newborn care] units who make all the entries of all the patients. They send regular SMS reminders to the parents of the baby for check-ups. And the community workers make sure that they monitor the baby’s condition at home. And whenever the doctor’s examination is due, we provide free transportation for the patient to be brought here.”
A Chance at Life
Thirty-nine Special Newborn Care Units are now providing round-the-clock care to babies across Madhya Pradesh.
Hooked up to a myriad of tubes, the infants at the Shivpuri District Hospital’s Special Newborn Care Unit can barely move their muscles. Some were born premature. Many have low birth weight.
With the odds stacked against them, some will not live to bear a name.
But the investment in healthcare is making a difference. Doctors tell us the quality of support being provided at the intensive care unit is critical, and the right interventions—at the right time—do bring a chance at life.