Each year, on November 14, India celebrates its children. We recognise a truth that Pandit Nehru held dear: “The future of the country shines in the eyes of its young.” After all, children are living messages we send into a time and place where we won’t go. By ensuring our children are nurtured to live healthy, productive and wholesome lives, we ensure a brighter future for our country.
Despite knowing this truism well, our efforts often fall short. Either we forego or we forget. That’s why today it’s important to also remind ourselves that, even as we’re smiling and celebrating, more than 1.3 million of our children under the age five die every year. What’s worse, many of these deaths are the result of largely preventable causes.
This is a reality we can change now if we choose to come together for the cause. I say this with conviction because I’ve seen first-hand what can be accomplished when India commits. I first joined the campaign to end polio in 1986, starting from the slums of Mumbai. In the absence of a vigorous public health system, people were suspicious that the focus on polio vaccination was a ploy for population control.
Years later, when Javed Akhtar and I travelled extensively in the hinterland of Uttar Pradesh we realised people were still harbouring the same misconceptions. It required strong political will and an aggressive campaign in mission mode to bring all the stakeholders together. The wheels were set into motion.
Health workers determinedly trekked from house to house — sometimes through forests or scorching heat — to bring the polio drops to every child. The government dedicated tremendous resources to serve the last mile. Citizens, community leaders, religious heads and celebrities alike, all came forward to help educate people about the importance of timely immunisation.
Together we helped achieve the impossible. We turned a country — once home to half the world’s polio cases — into a country officially free of the crippling disease.
There’s a profound opportunity again, this time to create an impact in child survival, with roles that each of us can champion.
First, the government must attend to child survival with the same vigour it invested in rooting out polio.
Many of the tools we need to save lives are available; they just aren’t accessible to the children and families who need them. By investing in health and strengthening health systems, we can help ensure that all children — not just those who can afford to pay — can access the treatment, tools or services they need.
Recently, the ‘Indian newborn action plan’ (INAP) was launched in alignment with the ‘every newborn action plan’ (ENAP) endorsed at the world health assembly in May 2014.
This will help save lives through expanding the coverage of targeted, low-cost interventions.
The government also took another important step by committing to include three new childhood vaccines in the country’s immunisation programme.
Immunisation is one of the most cost-effective tools available — preventing infection in the first place, saving children and families the stress of illness and hospitalisation, and saving the government and health systems precious resources.
Making tools like this available is exactly what the country needs, and the government must continue to support this with even more urgency and resolve.
The last but not the least is the critical role of parents. Where options are available to help protect children, prevent infection or treat disease, parents must pursue them comprehensively. That includes breast-feeding newborns, practising hand-washing and good hygiene, improving sanitation, vaccinating children and seeking regular care when needed.
(The author is an actor and former MP. The views expressed in the article are personal)