Working to eradicate ‘under-5’ child deaths

The formative years of an individual hold the key to adult life outcomes. From the moment a human being is conceived, a series of complex physiological and psychological mechanisms kick into action, setting the course for his or her development.

Development during the early stages of life largely depends on two critical factors—health and education. This, in turn, affects the long-term growth and progress of an individual, her contribution to the economy, and intrinsic productivity. The most crucial phase for growth in an individual’s life is conception to 5 years. It is in this phase that the neuroepithelium (brain after birth) and major physiological systems are formed. The expression of genes controlling growth is at its peak, thereby contributing to motor skills, cognitive abilities and overall learning faculties.

Source: UNICEF, WHO, The World bank, the United Nations Population Division. Levels and Trends in Child Mortality 2015. UNICEF

My research is about understanding the complex interplay between the correlates of socio-economic status and nutrition. It brings up the question: Why is nutrition so critical to realising the complete growth potential of a human being?

Being able to learn or educate oneself, on the other hand, is largely dependent on socio-economic stability, which, among other factors, is affected by iron deficiency, anaemia and other infectious diseases. It is in this light that nutrition plays a major role in a person’s lifetime.

Nutrition as per the World Health Organisation (WHO) is defined as the intake of food, considered in relation to the body’s dietary needs. Good nutrition is an adequate, well-balanced diet combined with regular physical activity—a cornerstone of good health.

In India, malnutrition is rampant and turning out to be a silent killer. A large number of under-5-child-deaths are reported in this country each year. In an attempt to provide solutions to a multi-faceted problem such as this, my work looks at household level data, collected at both, the primary and secondary level.

We, graduate research scholars of the IITB-Monash Research Academy, study for a dually-badged PhD from IIT Bombay and Monash University, spending time at both institutions to enrich our research experience. The Academy is a collaboration between India and Australia that endeavours to strengthen relationships between the two countries. Its CEO, Prof Murali Sastry says, “The IITB-Monash Research Academy represents an extremely important collaboration between Australia and India. Established in 2008, it is now a strong presence in the context of India-Australia collaborations.”

Using econometric models based on empirical reasoning, I have analysed the relationship between income, maternal education status, geographical location and child health status. Further, I have considered the role of sanitation, hand hygiene practices, a safe and non-infectious environment on child nutritional status. Since, dimension indices like education and standard of living are directly associated with food accessibility, my work also delineates the role of food security in ensuring nutritional sufficiency.

In the course of my research, I aim to construct an index that is based on the Human Development Index, but allows for complementary dimensions such as a child’s nutritional status. By analysing data collected from structured, controlled field trials, I am working towards delineating the role of micronutrient supplementation on the improvement of child health. The end point of work such as this is to provide evidence-based policy directives to government bodies, hospitals and research organisations working to reduce the burden of malnutrition.

While development organisations like the WHO, UNICEF, World Bank and India’s Ministry of Child and Women Development regularly issue guidelines and institutionalise procedures to battle malnutrition, I hope my research will play a pivotal role in finding causal relationships and assist in devising holistic policies.

In a fast-paced world, economic growth is perceived as a hallmark of progress. However, the economic well-being of a nation may not always translate into the well-being of its citizens. Prof Amartya Sen famously said, “Economic growth without investment in human development is unsustainable and unethical”.

I am convinced that a multi-pronged approach which integrates domestic practices, awareness among adolescent girls, pregnant women, agriculturists, and researchers will propel us to safeguard our children.

Research scholar: Harini Swaminathan, IITB-Monash Research Academy

Project title: Linkages of HDI to nutrition in a transient economy of India.

Supervisors: Prof N G Shah, Dr Anurag Sharma

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This story was written by Harini Swaminathan. Copyright IITB-Monash Research Academy.