Prayer is not the only reason Lalbiak and some 700 other residents of Mizoram’s Lawngban village go to the local church. They do so to get common medicines for minor ailments. For more serious illnesses, they have to trek 15 km to the nearest public health centre at Phura, 70 km south of Saiha, which is another 350 km from the state capital Aizawl, where the better hospitals are located.
A network of churches in Mizoram — and the Northeast’s other hill states — ensure villagers are not too deprived of primary healthcare. But, like her northeastern sister-states, Mizoram isn’t immune to Murphy’s Law. Despite health infrastructure improving every year, diseases like malaria are killing more people — 66 between January and July this year, as compared to 28 in the same period in 2008.
The state also has to contend with infiltrators and refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh, who allegedly often carry diseases with them. And of course, there are the armed forces personnel, like the two CRPF men who brought the swine flu to Aizawl.
“In a state where the population is only 8.9 lakh, the number of people coming in can make a difference,” says the state’s health and family welfare director, N. Pallai. “We have a doctor per 3,000 people, which is less than desired, but our support staff often fills the void.” He points out that the government’s policy of setting up healthcare facilities on the basis of population density makes little sense when villages are located in difficult terrain.
Officials say higher education levels can also come in the way. As in Falkawn, site of the Referral Hospital, some 20 km south of Aizawl, where, says Pallai, “Patients objected to swine flu patients being shifted there and threatened to leave, forcing us to use an isolated 10-bed ward.”
Assam claims a network of well-equipped hospitals (including those run by the army). However, doctors and support staff tend to overcrowd the urban centres and use insurgency as an excuse to avoid going to remote rural areas. So, says Assam health minister Himanta Biswa Sarma, “We’ve made it mandatory for those who have completed their MBBS to serve in rural areas or compensate for the expenditure that the government incurs on their education.”
In Meghalaya, health director KH Lakiang strikes a confident note: “We’ve learnt our lessons from the avian influenza scare some time ago,” he says. “We are prepared with rapid response teams and medicine stocks.”