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Babies in heaven

columns Updated: Nov 05, 2011 22:31 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
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The prime function of naming a person is to make him human, to provide him with a quality that allows us to consider him as someone you could get to know better and even care for. So let's say that the baby boy that 32-year-old Shikha Bibi delivered at the Lalbag Mahakuma Hospital in Murshidabad, West Bengal, on Monday evening was named Ishan. Not that Ishan was the baby's name, considering that after he was delivered and had let out a cry at birth, he died without being named.

Born hours after the birth of the world's seven billionth baby on the same day, I can't be sure what number living human Ishan would have been. But the fact that he was most likely killed because his mother, Shikha, was swabbed before her C-section delivery with carbolic acid instead of disinfectant - "The sweepers may have made a mistake and exchanged the bottles. The solution is of the same colour," BP Shau, the deputy chief municipal health officer of Murshidabad, candidly said - turns Ishan into some statistic or another.

Granted, Ishan's death is peculiar in the infant mortality category. But you don't have to be minister of state for health Sudip Bandopadhyay to think that there's nothing particularly odd about infant deaths in India. Just the week before, reacting to over 40 babies dying at the BC Roy Postgraduate Insti-tute of Paediatric Sciences in Kolkata and at the Burdwan Medical College, he said, "Such child deaths in large numbers are quite normal." Then, he somewhat gave the game away by adding, "I don't know why so much uproar is created on child deaths in the state." This wasn't one of country's health ministers speaking. This was a Trinamool Congress MP beholden to CM (and West Bengal health minister) Mamata Banerjee covering his party's ass.

There is something immensely sad about the death of newborn infants. But more searing is the way their deaths are considered par for the course, tragic but normal. No reports suggest that parents and families of the deceased have gone beyond a standard complaint. They have mourned the loss of a child and then returned home as losers in a round of Russian roulette.

That this macabre routine has something to do with the unfortunate families coming overwhelmingly from low income, subaltern backgrounds whose powers to throw a fit is minimal is undeniable. Perhaps I was being naive to think that a chief minister riding the wave of the support of such a section would make it a point to correct such a tradition of quiet acceptance.

The Murshidabad incident was an open case of ugly callousness on the part of a government hospital's medical staff. But the litany of deaths of infants in West Bengal in particular and in India in general has much to do with what happens - or doesn't - before the sick babies even enter the city or big town hospital.

Low birth weight babies have a higher risk of developing pulmonary infections that increases their chances of mortality. Every year, 2.6 crore births are recorded in India of which 23% are low weight (below 2.5 kg). In most cases, the infants are brought to hospitals only much after symptoms of wheezing and coughing become severe.

Which is where the sick newborn care unit (SNCU) becomes the difference between a dead baby and a baby who survives. These are district-level centres that care for sick newborns. The fact is that there are simply not enough of these units in India. On the same day that Ishan died, Bandopadhyay inaugurated the seventh SNCU in West Bengal. Gujarat has 43, Maharashtra 34, Karnataka 28 and Tamil Nadu 25. Which pretty much tells you something about the Bengal horror story. (The irony is that the first SNCU was set up in Purulia in the state in 2003.)

Last week, the Union health ministry announced a plan to set up SNCUs in all district hospitals across India over the next five years. A programme of visits by accredited social health activists (ASHAs) to the homes of new mothers six times in 42 days has also been rolled out.

Maybe, just maybe, with such quicker access options for parents to get their sick babies medical attention, a crib death will become far more shocking than it is today. And what happened to Ishan will shame a hospital and a government to death. Yes, this is a grim matter to talk about on a fine Sunday morning. But deal with it. Shikha Bibi had a grimmer day last Monday.