On an average, at least one child below the age of five died each month over the last five years, according to records with the health ministry.
At a time when health services are reaching more people than ever with health centres offering specialised facilities and air ambulance enhancing access to heathcare, figures like this is troubling.
For a while now, the health ministry and its officials in the dzongkhags have been in dilemma over setting the target for infant mortality rate. While health and planning officials agree that the desired target should be zero death, they also agree that zero is not a realistic target. But believing that target above zero would be considered ominous, the target, until recently, had remained zero.
The health sector’s concerns are valid. Given the nature of health problems, it is understandable that the health ministry may not be able to save each and every life. When the issue was raised last year during the mid term review, the prime minister had insisted that the zero death target remain.
The target has been revised to halving the number of infant deaths.
Bhutan has always set high targets, be it in its development philosophy or tourism, elections or conservation, and for that matter, also health. We set ambitious targets so that we can work towards achieving them.
We don’t lower our targets, especially when it concerns the lives of children, to show that we have achieved something. It is hoped that the request to revise the said target is not driven by the performance assessment of civil servants or the performance agreements that have been signed.
The people and policymakers are aware of the challenges the health sector is confronted with. Despite the shortage of health workers and specialised care, the people are mindful of the efforts that are made to make healthcare services accessible. With the upcoming mother and child hospital giving hope to save more lives, we could have been more confident and optimistic with our targets. Lowering the targets and taking pride in achieving them could risk setting a precedent of celebrating mediocrity.
The issue is such that the health sector alone can only do so much. While infant mortality rate is considered an important national indicator of health, it is understood that the matter is sensitive to factors such as socioeconomic development and basic living conditions, which at times can be beyond the health sector’s purview.
Studies have identified poverty, access to sanitation and safe drinking water and education, among others, as risk factors for infant mortality cases.
Bhutan has made significant progress in improving the lives of its people. We are still building roads and schools, and connecting drinking water pipes to homes. Our economy recorded a growth of eight percent last year. Children and youth should be the main beneficiaries when an economy prospers.
We are yet to see that it does.