A country where 58% of the population is food insecure and over 43% children are malnourished, health is an outstanding concern all the time. Add the repeated misery of floods of 2010 and 2011 and displacement of population in hundreds of thousands because of military operations in KPK and FATA and it becomes an ever more pressing concern. When a matter is that critical, you expect to see highlighted everywhere. Unfortunately, the Pakistani media is, by and large, silent on this issue.
Let’s start with the health issues of children. Not only neonatal mortality is responsible for 57% of all deaths in children younger than 5 years in the country, the country also has the dubious distinction of having the highest neonatal mortality rate in the region. Nearly two million children less than five years of age die of pneumonia. Similar number dies of diarrhea every year. According to UN figures, around 432,000 children die before reaching the age of five in Pakistan and the majority of these lives are taken by pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, malaria, tuberculosis and tetanus. But if you go through any newspaper in Pakistan or watch any news bulletin on any of the TV channels, you would think that the only disease killing children in Pakistan is Polio.
Pick any newspaper, almost 90 per cent of the news items about children’s health cover stories about polio vaccination drive of the government, its success, failures and the political mileage politicians get out of it. Half of such stories would be based on statements by political personalities such as Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, Farzana Raja and Shehnaz Wazir Ali during various campaign launches. Ironically we are not even doing that very well and Pakistan is one of the three countries — the other two being Nigeria and Afghanistan — in the world which still has the disease. Pakistan has not done much to meet the millennium development goal of reducing childhood mortality by 2015 and control of infectious disease which should have been the topmost priority remains neglected.
Health experts have noted that the higher occurrence of communicable diseases among children and acute malnutrition in the country is primarily due to poverty, higher illiteracy rate among mothers and the government’s lack of commitment towards ensuring food security to each and every citizen. They also attributed it to the inherent problems in infant feeding practices and access to “right” foods, a problem that can be addressed if media makes it a priority and educated masses about it. Unfortunately media is busy pursuing its own agenda and is content with airing stories of nurses fighting it out with traders in the streets of Lahore during protests for increase in their wages.
As far as health issues of adults are concerned, one sees stories only about cases of criminal negligence, medical malpractice, lack of infrastructure, absentee doctors and protests and strikes by medical and paramedical staff. There is hardly any coverage given to issues relating to nutrition, health policy, legislation and drug pricing policies, etc.
With the devolution of the ministry of health following the Eighteenth Amendment, Pakistan faces the challenge of developing a reliable provincial infrastructure that would integrate the efforts of various stakeholders in promoting better health outcomes. Unfortunately, we are not even at the stage where a workable policy is developed and budgetary priorities are reassessed, so developing a workable provincial infrastructure remains a distant dream.
Written originally for The Express Tribune, this is the unedited version.