Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 18:15 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 18:15 | SYDNEY

India needs to rethink public health

2 June 2011 10:39

Vinod Daniel is a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute and Chairman of AusHeritage, Australia's International Network for Cultural Heritage Services.

Dr Abdul Kalam, former President of India, remarked during his address at the Brien Holden Vision Institute in Sydney in May that health is a major priority for India, with an allocation of nearly 3% of the national budget (in line with the 6% budget allocation for education). In this year's budget, India's overall health allocation has been increased by 20% to Rs.26,760 crore.

Dr A K Shiva Kumar, one of the primary authors of a new paper in Lancet, has remarked that nearly 39 million people in India are pushed to poverty every year because of ill health and the growing cost of accessing health care in the private sector.

In 2004, due to financial constraints, around one-third of the population in rural India didn't go for any treatment — up from one-sixth in 1995. Similarly, in urban areas, one-fifth of ailments were untreated due to monetary problems in 2004 — up from one-tenth in 1995. Borrowing money or selling assets helped to finance nearly half of hospital admissions in rural areas and nearly one-third of admissions in urban areas.

Hopefully, this increase in India's budget allocation will decrease the financial burden and increase access. But it is disappointing that expenditure on public health has decreased in this current budget.

In the last budget, public health got Rs.2,536 crore for vector control diseases, mental health, TB, blindness and leprosy. This has been reduced by over 20% to Rs.1,906 crore in this budget. The numbers from just one aspect in the public health budget, blindness prevention, are astounding. Two international experts in this area, Prof Brien Holden and Dr Gullapalli Nageswar Rao, note that:  

India has 133 million people who are blind or vision impaired simply because they do not have a pair of glasses and 25 million who are blind or vision impaired from eye disease (20% of those affected globally from both causes).The societal and economic costs through losses in productivity and direct and indirect costs of blindness and impaired vision to individuals, families and society have been estimated at $269 billion for uncorrected distance refractive error alone and $42 billion for eye disease annually. India bears 20% of the burden of world blindness and impaired vision. Eliminating this scourge could enable over 100 hundred million people to escape disability and poverty, and save society tens of billions of dollars.

Good support for public health will enable people to live longer, healthier and more productive lives. With poverty alleviation a major concern of the Indian government and diseases such as diabetes and AIDS starting to have an impact, public health is an area worth considering for increased support in future Indian budgets. It would be money well spent.

Photo courtesy of the World Bank.