One of UNICEF’s leading priorities across the world is to ensure that every child has the best possible start to life - a safe birth, sound new-born care and good nutrition.
But these priorities face some of the toughest challenges in India where despite major improvements in the last 30 years in the health system, lives continue to be lost to early childhood illnesses, poor or inadequate newborn care and childbirth-related causes. 63 infants per every 1,000 of those born alive die before the age of one.
The odds against a child surviving just being born are high: 63 infants per every 1,000 of those born alive die before the age of one. The reason for this high rate of infant mortality is closely tied up with the equally high rate of maternal deaths: few women have access to skilled birth attendants, fewer still to quality, emergency obstetric care.
For those infants who do survive, the prevalence of early childhood illnesses poses a serious threat to their growth and development. More than two million children are known to die every year from preventable infections including measles and tetanus. In addition is the problem of malnutrition, which severely affects a child’s capacity to learn and grow. One in every three of the world’s malnourished children lives here and about 50 per cent of all childhood deaths in India are attributable to malnutrition.
Although one of the major causes for malnutrition is inadequate food intake, it is influenced by other factors too. The availability of health services and access to them, the availability of care for the child and the pregnant women, the quality of that care, whether acceptable hygiene practices are followed or not are important contributing factors.
Due to their lower social status, girls are far more at risk of malnutrition than boys their age. Partly as a result of this cultural bias, up to one third of all adult women in India are underweight. Inadequate care of these women already underdeveloped, especially during pregnancy, leads them in turn to deliver underweight babies who are vulnerable to further malnutrition and disease. In addition is the widespread prevalence of anaemia amongst children under three and of Vitamin A and iodine deficiencies.
UNICEF supports the national reproductive and child health programme in its aim to reduce maternal, neonatal and child mortality. In partnership with the government, it aims to improve overall immunisation coverage, raise awareness of the indispensable role played by routine immunisation in protecting a community’s health, improve the quality of emergency obstetric care and promote an integrated management of early childhood illnesses.
UNICEF also supports the government in its strategies to reduce and prevent malnutrition. It assists the government in expanding and enhancing its integrated child development services programme by helping improve the training of childcare workers and developing community-based, early childcare interventions that address issues surrounding inadequate nutrition and mineral and vitamin deficiencies.