A little less than half the population of India is unhealthy—either too thin or overweight—says a countrywide government survey on health and nutrition.
The third National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) for 2005-06 also drastically pruned the number of HIV-positive people in the country to 1.70 million, from the previous government estimate of 2.47 million. The survey found that 0.28% of Indians are HIV-positive, significantly lower than the National AIDS Control Organisation’s revised estimate of 0.36% reported in July.
Some 100,000 households, with more than 120,000 women and 74,000 men, were interviewed for NFHS-3, which covered the age group 15-49 for women and 15-54 for men.
The NFHS programme, initiated in the 1990s, has emerged as the nationally important source of data on population, health and nutrition in the country.
“Don’t be surprised that there is widespread ill-health in India,” said Imrana Qadeer, a professor at the Centre of Social Medicine and Community Health at Jawaharlal Nehru University. “That has been seen in the incidence of anaemia and other signs of malnutrition among children and women year after year.”
The survey found, based on the body mass index (BMI), that 34% of men aged between 15 and 49 are thin, compared with 36% women. Though BMI for men and women are similar, the survey found 13% of women and 9% of men were either overweight or obese.
BMI is a nutrition status indicator that is derived by dividing an individual’s weight in kg by the person’s height, measured in metres.
Obesity is more acute for women in Punjab, Kerala and New Delhi. Similarly, 34% of the men surveyed were found to be thin, compared with 36% women.
Most thin men were found in Tripura, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Also, 33% women who have been married are thin, which is only a slight decline from 36% reported by the last survey in 1998-99. The prevalence of anaemia in women who have been married has increased from 52% in 1998-99, when the last survey was conducted, to 56% in the latest one.
“Indian women suffer from a dual burden of malnutrition, with nearly half being either too thin or overweight... (This is because) as undernourishment decreases, overnutrition increases by approximately the same amount,” the survey notes.
“Comprehensive changes are needed in schemes that are meant to provide children and mothers with nutrition supplements, and in the public distribution system, if the ill effects of policy neglect and food price rise on the health of the nation is to be countered,” says Qadeer.
For the first time, the survey looked at HIV prevalence and attitudes towards sex education as well.
“The HIV/AIDS-related findings show prevalence is down, but in critical high-risk areas, this has not happened. And there are new hot spots as well,” cautioned Ashok Alexander, director of the Indian AIDS Initiative run by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Ashok Alexander, director of the Indian Aids Initiative run by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
Contrary to recent claims by many politicians, most of those surveyed favoured spreading sexual awareness among schoolchildren. Among males, 99% said girls should be instructed on moral values in school while 68% also said they favoured education on how condoms can help avoid sexually transmitted diseases (STD).
Some 43% women and 62% men said they approve of “sex and sexual behaviour” education for boys.
And more than 60% and 80% men and women, respectively, said they approve of HIV/AIDS-related topics being taught in schools.
In the last three months, several state governments have either banned or opposed a sexual education course for schools introduced by the National Council for Education Research and Training (NCERT), the central body that determines school curriculae.
Alexander said this and other findings indicate that the survey data needs to be studied carefully and regularly so that the right health policies are framed and development funds reach the necessary projects.
“We do find this survey’s findings useful,” said a Planning Commission official who deals with health-related policy matters at the central planning body.
“Such surveys are always being used to define policy direction that needs attention. It is natural to debate findings before final decisions,” the official added.