Beating malnutrition; health awareness seeps into interiors of Bengal

Purulia (IANS) Shruti Roy, a chubby seven-month-old baby of Loharsole village in this West Bengal district bordering Jharkhand, is a far cry from all-too-familiar pictures of malnourished children. And as awareness grows among the shy and conservative pregnant women and lactating mothers of this region, more and more infants now resemble Shruti.

Awareness is being spread thanks to initiatives of the state government that appears determined to bring down West Bengal’s rate of underweight children, currently at 31.6 per cent as per the National Family Health Survey (2015-16).

Shruti’s mother, Ashtami Roy, who valued her daughter’s health over tradition, told a group of visiting journalists: “I gave sattu and bananas to my daughter when she was six months old.”

The Bede community residing in Loharsole village were snake charmers by profession. They are tribal people residing in mud huts in the extreme interiors. The total population of the village is 532.

Talking about the gradual change and their initiatives, Amitabha Patra, District Programme Officer, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), said: “We provide supplementary nutrition for pregnant and lactating women and for the children up to six years. In order to counter calorie- and protein-related malnourishment, we provide nutritional support.”

“We have been able to make them understand the importance of exclusive breastfeeding of new-borns till six months and the importance of the mother’s first milk,” he said.

Colostrum (the milk produced by the mother just after delivery) provides protective antibodies and essential nutrients, acting as a first “natural” immunisation for newborns, strengthening their immune system and reducing the chances of death in the neonatal period.

“When my baby was born I gave her the first milk immediately for I had learnt that it will keep her healthy. It is better than injection (vaccines),” said Mamoni Bedia, who gave birth recently.

Patra said under the ICDS scheme, he and his team are imparting pre-school education, as well as health and nutrition education, for three- to six-year-old children through community-based Anganwadi Centres (AWCs).

Immunisation, health check-ups and referral services (for severely undernourished children) are provided in convergence with the state government’s Department of Health and Family Welfare.

Here in Purulia, the ICDS provides these services to the remotest community with its vast network of 4,831 operational AWCs in 22 ICDS projects across the district.

With Unicef’s support, these ICDS projects now provide improved growth monitoring, and better feeding practices for infants and children, among others.

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