By the Blouin News Science & Health staff

World Health Day: A long way to go for India

by in Medicine.

Women sell fresh vegetables at a daily local market in Jharkhand, India, March 27, 2015. The Washington Post/Getty Images.

Women sell fresh vegetables at a daily local market in Jharkhand, India, March 27, 2015. The Washington Post/Getty Images.

On April 7, World Health Day, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted “Govt is working tirelessly to realise the dream of a Healthy India where every citizen has access to proper & affordable healthcare.”

To back up that claim, India started its first national air quality index on Monday, belatedly following a World Health Organization (WHO) report last May that found 13 of the world’s 20 most air-polluted cities are in India. Of the 1,600 cities studied, the Indian capital New Delhi had the world’s dirtiest air with an annual average of 153 micrograms of small particulates (PM2.5) per cubic meter. According to the WHO, a shocking 627,000 Indians die each year due to pollution. The new index will initially cover ten cities and will subsequently be extended to 60. There are already around 247 Indian cities that have some air-quality monitoring mechanisms in place, including at least 16 with online real-time monitoring capabilities, but the “voluminous data” is often hard for people to understand. Government officials say the new index will track eight pollutants and then provide one consolidated number with color-coded associated health impacts, which will all be displayed online. The public can then see whether it would be safer to stay indoors or to refrain from strenuous activity outdoors, notes the BBC. But aside from issuing new rules on the disposal of waste from construction work (a major source of air pollution), the government has not done much to actually reduce air pollution.

More promising is Indradhanush, a massive immunization campaign aimed at inoculating 90% of the country’s children against seven preventable diseases by 2020. It began on Tuesday and will run through July. Health officials said the campaign would focus on diseases for which vaccines are available, including diphtheria, whooping cough, tetanus, measles, hepatitis B, and Japanese encephalitis. The Indian government provides free immunizations through its national public health system, yet overall vaccination rates in the country remain frustratingly low. Only 44% of children aged 1 to 2 years have received basic inoculations, with significantly less in rural districts, according to a National Family Health survey. And while India has made enormous strides in the past few decades in reducing mortality from these diseases, there is still far more work to be done.

Another sector in which India lags behind is food safety – the theme of this year’s World Health Day. The WHO has calculated that nearly 700,000 people die each year in South Asian countries alone from contaminated food and water. Toxic pesticides and antibiotics are the norm rather than the exception in food. The Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) said on Tuesday that pesticide use and management in India is largely unregulated, and food contaminated with pesticide residues is freely used by unsuspecting consumers. “Pesticides are linked to long-term health effects such as endocrine disruption, birth defects and cancer. Besides raw agriculture produce, pesticides have been found in packaged food products such as soft drinks, bottled water and in human tissues in India,” CSE noted. And while street food’s microbiological contamination is a concern, just as troubling is its most common replacement — processed and packaged food full of chemical additives whose long-term risks are unknown, as well as sky-high levels of salt, sugar, and fat.

Modi’s “Make in India” campaign needs to be joined by a “Make India Healthy” campaign.

 – Michael Lerner, Blouin Business Editor