Improving the Health of Women and Children in India

A Director’s Message

By Anita Shet, MD, PhD, Director of Johns Hopkins Maternal and Child Health Center, India

On New Year’s Day in 2021, approximately 68,000 babies were born across India. Their mothers would have traversed the arduous journey of pregnancy to reach the miraculous day of their birth. How many of these babies will be alive and thriving by the end of the year 2021?

About five decades ago, one in ten babies in India would not have made it past their first birthday. In the intervening years, infant mortality rate decreased by 75% and remarkable progress was made in many health fields. But the year 2020 was a year like no other. Eclipsing all other events, the COVID-19 pandemic brought undue suffering amongst families around the world. Disruptions in primary health services and immunization programs deeply affected the most vulnerable groups, especially women, adolescent girls, and children. Partial results from the National Family Health Survey round 5 (NFHS-5) from 2019-2020 revealed worsening child malnutrition indicators such as stunting and wasting. The slowing economy served to aggravate disparities and health inequities. Yet, 2020 was also the year in which the pivotal role of public health was recognized as the bedrock on which populations thrive.

The Johns Hopkins Maternal and Child Health Center in India was formed in early 2020, with the mission to strengthen public health education, accelerate research in maternal and child health, and support implementation of public health interventions that will reduce disparities and improve the lives of mothers and children in India, and bring us closer towards achieving the Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs).

We began this year with a rapid survey of experts to assess public health research priorities for India, that indicated that strengthening existing services rather than novel research was the need of the hour.

Credit: Paromita Chatterjee

Preliminary results from a landscape analysis of public health institutions in India revealed the need to focus on inter-institutional partnerships and advocacy for careers in public health. A variety of research projects in maternal nutrition, newborn health, immunization coverage, health utilization, and COVID-19 infection and vaccine preparedness, are underway. We launched several online public health courses including, the ‘COVID-19 response in India: The impact on women and children’s health and wellbeing’ course that was endorsed by the Health Minister of India. Our point of pride is the launch of a full scholarship for doctoral studies in maternal and child health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

In the few minutes that you have taken to read this, at least one mother and eight young children in India would have died. Many more would be consigned to lead a life of unnecessary struggle, where quality of life is given little or no importance.

Clearly, there is work to be done. But this cannot be accomplished alone. In the coming years we will focus on sustainable partnerships, bound together with the common goal of improving health of women and children and whole communities. As we thus journey together, we remember the words of Rabindranath Tagore, a Nobel laureate from West Bengal, “Reach high, for stars lie hidden in you. Dream deep, for every dream precedes the goal.”

Source: MCHI Annual Report 2020

Download the MCHI Annual Report 2020 to learn more about activities from the launch year including new courses and research projects on maternal nutrition, newborn health, immunization coverage, health utilization, and COVID-19 infection and vaccine preparedness.