Anuradha Sharma| Kolkata| The News Minute| July 15, 2014|
At a time when news of children dying in Israeli bombing of Gaza has shocked the world, closer home, crib deaths have begun to haunt West Bengal again.
Twelve infants have died over the weekend—seven on Saturday and five on Sunday—at the Malda Medical College and Hospital in north Bengal. Hospital authorities have said the deaths happened because the babies, mostly aged between 0 and 30 days, were brought to the hospital at critical stage. The infants were delivered at home and were grossly underweight. They suffered from malnutrition and had respiratory problems.
“The Malda hospital is a referral centre. The babies who arrive at this Malda facility are already very ill, critically ill. Saving them becomes that much more difficult,” Derek O’Brien, spokesperson for the ruling Trinamool Congress and a Member of Parliament, wrote in his blog.
Hinting that the situation is not out of the ordinary, O Brien wrote: “It needs to be noted that even on a ‘normal’ day, the infant mortality is about three to four in tertiary hospitals such as the one at Malda,” he added.
According to the National Health Mission, West Bengal has an infant mortality rate—number of deaths of children aged less than a year per 1,000 live births—of 32 (the national average is 44). Neonatal mortality, when a child dies within the first month, accounts for three quarters of infant deaths, according to Unicef.
Faced with criticism over crib-death reports in 2012—when 110 infants died in 30 days in Malda—chief minister Mamata Banerjee had rather indiscreetly remarked that the babies were conceived before she had assumed power and, therefore, the blame lay with the earlier Left Front government. Given her tendency to blame the Left Front for everything, her comment was much ridiculed.
However, the fact is infant mortality is linked to the poor health of mothers, which can be blamed on both the government and society. The deaths also point to the grossly inadequate health infrastructure of the state.
“Most of these deaths can in a sense be blamed on the fact that very young women, with immature bodies and in poor health conditions themselves, give birth to underweight and undernourished babies,” O’Brien wrote in his blog, which he said followed his conversation with Tridib Chatterjee, the chairman of taskforce on crib deaths in West Bengal. “If the practice of marrying off girls at a very young age, in their teens, could be put to an end, it would be a big help.”
West Bengal has a very high incidence of under-age marriages. In some districts the prevalence rate of under-age marriage is so high that every second bride is a minor. In its profile of West Bengal state, Unicef points out that almost half of female teens are pregnant by the age of 19 and more than 60 per cent of pregnant women are anaemic. It further says that the number of institutional deliveries is less than half the total; and one third of women do not receive the recommended three antenatal checkups during pregnancy and only two thirds get post-natal care within two weeks of delivery.