This may be a bitter pill to swallow but on every front, our public health sector seems to be ailing a little more with every passing day. According to a Lancet report, the death toll from malaria which stands at 2 lakh annually is actually 13 times more than World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates. Of these, 90 per cent deaths were in rural areas, most of which were cases that did not receive medical attention. Then comes news that the health ministry under the former minister, the redoubtable Anbumani Ramadoss, had actually shut down three major vaccine units, pushing the prices of these lifesavers up dramatically. The shambolic state of the public health centres is now too well known to bear reiteration.
If Mr Ramadoss was hyperactive, not always for the right reasons, the current minister, the amiable Ghulam Nabi Azad, is the opposite. He is rarely seen or heard on matters relating to his ministry. The Planning Commission is on record expressing its dismay at the state of public healthcare in India that is grossly under-budgeted, understaffed and lacks the basic minimum facilities for treatment. Then there is the question of access for people who live in rural areas, if at all a functioning health facility exists there. Mr Azad has admitted that rural households often spend up to 80 per cent of their earnings on healthcare. It is little comfort that private players have entered this sector as their prohibitive costs put them out of reach for the majority.
The health budget has remained stuck at a little over one per cent of the GDP for years now, despite chronic diseases like diabetes and cardiovascular diseases showing a sharp increase. Within our poor health parameters, women’s health is the poorest given that most of them neither seek nor receive healthcare in time. For the government to expect that qualified doctors and ancillary staff will go to rural areas to work is a pipedream. Even if they were so inclined, it must be asked what infrastructure and therapeutic drugs would be available to them. At a time when we talk of our demographic advantage, it is passing strange that the health of young people is not a priority. The demographic dividend can only be reaped by a healthy, productive population. If the health ministry has a blueprint, we’d like to hear about it. If not, it is perhaps time to seek a second opinion on the treatment that the sector has been getting.