World Bank Social Scientist Pinpoints Weaknesses in India’s Public Health System

10/2/06: World Bank Senior Social Scientist Monica Dasgupta shared her concerns about India’s current disease prevention in a talk last week at the Watson Institute. A demographer who has recently become interested in public health, Dasgupta explained that India’s preventive measures and sanitary system maintenance are in sore neglect, even though the country has strong response capabilities once a serious disease outbreak has taken place.

“Focusing on clinical services while neglecting exposure to disease is like mopping up the floor continuously while the tap is running,” she said in her talk, titled “Public Health in India: Dangerous Neglect.” For instance, she said, India has successfully contained the avian flu epidemic, something that other South Asian countries have yet to do, but Indians still have to worry about getting typhoid at lunch.
Politicians earn less public notoriety when they prevent a disease outbreak than when they come to the rescue to stop an emergent epidemic. This is one of the principal obstacles to sound public health for a country that has the potential to successfully reduce exposure to infectious diseases, Dasgupta said.
Other problems include conflicting regulations, lack of participation from the general public, under-funding, and poor dissemination of information and research results. For example, often, even when an effective study has telling results, these are not passed down to the local officials or citizens who could make the best use of them.
In her latest field study, Dasgupta investigated the living standards of local elites in India and showcased the large gap of unmet basic sanitary needs. She and a colleague found that although the elites studied were more likely to live on streets with drains, they were no more likely to have unclogged drains than anyone else, which shows the lack of thought that often goes towards disease prevention. The lack of correlation between elite status and infrastructure maintenance was surprising, she added.
However, India is doing many things right, she said. The country has widespread individual health care, many skilled medical and scientific professionals, effective media outreach campaign capabilities, and the capacity to create useful statistical data. The challenge comes in putting all of these potentially helpful elements to work. National leaders, local leaders, and the general population all need to become more informed and more engaged in order for this to happen.
“Right now, public health is something that people are trying to rethink,” said Dasgupta. She did not comment on any specific plans that the World Bank has for future public health aid in India, but noted that it was a topic of great interest to a public-oriented donor agency like the World Bank.
This lecture was part of the Third Annual Lecture Series in South Asia, sponsored in part by the Brown South Asian Students Association.
Submitted by Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Liana Paris ’07