Nine-month-old Wajid Hussain, the first child of his parents Shahir and Amreen Hussain who live in a slum in western Mumbai, was under medical observation even before he was born last August. Not because something is wrong with him, but so that he may remain healthy as an adult.
A group of medical researchers in Mumbai and the United Kingdom have been tracking the health of Wajid’s 22-year-old mother Amreen even before she was pregnant, enlisting her to come to a health centre six days a week, to eat a micronutrient-rich snack made with greens, milk and fruit.
A micronutrient is defined as a substance, such as a vitamin or mineral, essential for the body’s proper growth and metabolism.
Amreen, who lives in the Indira Nagar slum in Santacruz, is among over 3,000 women participating in a five-year-long unique medical study — Project Saras began in January 2006 — unfolding in 40 locations across slums in western Mumbai. The researchers are hoping to establish the foetal origins of adult illnesses, in particular, heart disease, diabetes and stroke.
On Monday, in Geneva, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a report that put India’s loss of income in 2005 from the three diseases at over Rs 360 billion. WHO forecasts that the figure will jump six-fold by 2015.
In the light of studies tabulating the rising toll of the three diseases — diabetes afflicts over 25 million Indians today — this project is very significant.
Through earlier experiments, the researchers from Southampton, UK, who are partnering Indian researchers on Saras, have already established links between low birth weight and diabetes or heart disease in adulthood.
Saras is looking if India can tackle these diseases even before the foetus is conceived, by testing whether a micro-nutrient-rich addition to the mother’s diet ensures she doesn’t give birth to an underweight baby.
“If data establishes an unambiguous link between the snack and birth weight, intervening in life in the womb could become part of our health policy, an area of action for the government to ward off disease in tomorrow’s adults,” said paediatrician Ramesh Potdar, who heads Saras.
An estimated one-third of all Indian babies are born underweight. Dr Sirazul Sahariah, who is managing Project Saras pointed out: “It is the only statistic that we have not been able to significantly change since Independence despite our economic advances.”