Purulia, West Bengal: Promila Tirkey and her husband Ajit are on their way home to her village in Bagmundi block of Purulia district. Cradled in their arms, they are dotingly shielding their baby daughter from the incessant drizzle. Just a few weeks ago, the couple managed to save their newborn from diarrhoea-led death by a quick trip to the district hospital in Purulia town—West Bengal’s second most backward district.
The Tirkey’s baby is one of the nearly 1,600 critically ill, under 30-day-old babies saved over four years by the Sick Newborn Care Unit at Purulia, set up at a cost of $80,000 (about Rs3,144,000). The unit was funded by the United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef), but is now jointly funded and run by them and the state government.
“The mortality among sick babies born in the district hospital fell to less than 50% within a couple of months after the unit began operations and the figure has now dropped to 23%,” said Dr Mohammed Hussain, Unicef health consultant, Purulia.
The unit, which was set up in 2003, has 14 beds and is geared to saving the lives of critically-ill newborn children. It shows how relatively small investments, used effectively, can go a long way in helping alter decades-old and chronic problems in rural India.
Purulia borders Jharkhand and has a sizeable tribal population and is also wrecked by Maoist violence.
Only Malda in North Bengal, sandwiched between Jharkhand and Bangladesh, could be termed as more backward.
“Most of the babies who come in are severely underweight—sometimes as low as 700g at birth—often asphyxiated and at times stricken by life-threatening infections,” said Dr Sutirtha Roy, in charge of the unit, the first in a rural area anywhere in the world.
“More importantly, most of the babies belonged to extremely poor families and parents who wage a daily battle for survival,” Roy added.
“For India, where two-thirds of all infant deaths happen during the first 28 days after birth, intensive care of sick neonates is crucial for ensuring child survival,” said Priyanka Khanna, advocacy and partnership officer at the West Bengal state office of Unicef, which actively assisted the state government and a scientific research organization— Society for Applied Studies—in setting up the unit.
“Purulia was chosen on account of its adverse development indicators, low female literacy rate, sizeable tribal population of 19.2% and low rate of safe delivery,” said Khanna.
Inspired by the success of the Purulia unit, the state government has emulated the Purulia experiment in four other districts—Birbhum, Coochbehar, Bankura and Raiganj.
Other states have also adopted the Purulia model and similar units are up and running in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, and Orissa. Similar units are expected to become functional in Bihar and Madhya Pradesh shortly.
The success of the model has inspired other developing countries such as Myanmar, Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal to adopt the model.
The Purulia care unit is equipped with sophisticated life-saving instruments that would be the envy of many high-brow urban super-specialty hospitals.
Incubators, multi-parameter monitoring systems, electronic weighing scales, the latest oxygenators, intravenous drip systems and body warmers are just some of the weapons the unit uses in its battle against infant mortality.
The sophisticated gadgets are in an atmosphere that simple rural folk have not even dreamt of.
“For a few moments, I could not believe that a place like this could even exist,” said Parbati Murmu, another parent whose child was recovering at the hospital from a bronchial infection.
“The bright walls, cartoons on the walls, smiling nurses and spotlessly clean environment make the stay of the little ones even more pleasant,” Murmu added.