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India's Growth Story Needs A Shot In The Arm, Literally

21/11/2015 10:48 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Life is sustained by the stories we tell. A key story being told of our times is that of economic growth. What we need to remember in that story is that a nation's growth relies on its citizens and is, in fact, even shaped by them. This premise necessitates that for a nation to achieve the growth it desires, the nation must enable its citizens to be healthy and productive. India's own growth story, however promising, is under duress.

Every year, 2.7 crore children are born in India. This is the sum that we hope becomes the dividend of India's growth equation. This cohort, it is projected, adds to India's celebrated profile of having the world's largest youth population for the next two decades -- approximately 356 million 10-24 year-olds. Projections peg great hope on this statistic, anticipating it to be the major factor driving the plot of India's growth story.

"Apart from exacting a huge mortality burden -- pneumonia kills more than 1.7 lakh children and diarrhoea more than 1.8 lakh children under five each year -- these diseases levy a significant economic strain..."

However, there are daunting challenges accompanying this demographic advantage. With specific reference to health challenges, we know that a healthy start to life is already half done. However, it is estimated that 16,000 children below the age of five die every day in India. Most of these deaths are owing to preventable diseases such as pneumonia and diarrhoea. The "fortunate" few who do survive the onslaught of these early afflictions, nevertheless, will have impaired their ability to grow into healthy, productive citizens who can help with India's economic success.

Apart from exacting a huge mortality burden on the country -- pneumonia kills more than 1.7 lakh children and diarrhoea more than 1.8 lakh children under five each year -- these diseases levy a significant economic strain on families, communities and the health-care system. Moreover, it is the mighty burden of grief that becomes most confounding, knowing that the loss was preventable.

It becomes abundantly clear then that a comprehensive approach targeting the early childhood stage is critical. This approach includes interventions such as immunisation, promoting breastfeeding, nutrition, safe drinking water, hand-washing, hygiene, reducing indoor air pollution and zinc supplementation. Vaccines are a central element of this approach. They protect children from leading causes of death and illness for a lifetime. Considered one of the most cost-effective innovations in the history of health and development, vaccines can be the element that keeps India's growth story intact.

Evidence shows that immunisation has played a pivotal role in improving child health and survival in India and around the world. In fact, vaccines even have broader benefits. Vaccines are unique in that they help people stay healthy by preventing infection at the very outset, in turn avoiding recurring sickness, death and unnecessary social and economic costs to society.

Studies have found that routine immunisation not only helps protect health and provide medical savings, but also yields other indirect benefits, including improvements in cognitive development, educational attainment and labour productivity. Many vaccines are also known to provide "herd protection," offering protection even to unimmunised individuals. This begs the understanding that immunisation can be that strategic intervention that disproportionately improves the outcomes of India's health systems by curbing morbidity and mortality caused by preventable diseases.

Moreover, vaccines are considered a public health "best buy". Reason dictates that India -- a new middle-income country with constricted purse-strings when it comes to spending on social counts such as health -- must prioritise, earmark and dedicate resources, both financial and technical, for preventative cost-effective solutions such as its immunisation programme.

And the government in India does recognise the promise of this innovation. Polio's immunisation programme made a strong case -- India has the capabilities to meet prioritised targets, India has faith in the power of prevention, and last but not least, India has showed that it cares for its future, i.e. its children.

"It is vital that the government delivers on its promise to introduce crucial new life-saving vaccines that will safeguard its children against pneumonia and diarrhoea."

This year, the government made efforts with the Mission Indradhanush campaign to strengthen the reach of its immunisation programme so that all children are fully immunised by 2020. And it is doing well. After a successful first phase, the second phase targeted 352 districts including 279 mid-priority districts, 33 of which are from the Northeastern states, and 40 districts from the first phase where large numbers of missed out children were detected. The week-long second phase was executed last month. It is being followed up by week-long intensified immunisation drives for three consecutive months, one in both November and December and one in January 2016.

In July 2014, the government also announced its plans to expand the national immunisation programme to include four new vaccines including one against rotavirus diarrhoea. However, vaccines for pneumonia (bacterial pneumonia and meningitis) and diarrhoea are not yet available on the national programme and those that need these vaccines most continue to be affected by these diseases.

It is vital that the government delivers on its promise to introduce crucial new life-saving vaccines that will safeguard its children against pneumonia and diarrhoea. This will be a move that helps India have not just the largest immunisation programme in the world but the best one. Now, that has the rumblings of a great Indian growth story.

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