The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Vitamin probe report hits out at Unicef

Guwahati, Jan. 2: A CID report on the botched vitamin A campaign in Assam in 2001 has accused Unicef of being uncooperative to the extent of negating the one-man inquiry commission’s efforts to get to the bottom of the truth.

Twenty-three children had died and thousands were taken ill on being administered doses of vitamin A on November 11 that year.

Inspector-general of police (CID) S.P. Kar claims in his report, already submitted to the Gauhati High Court, that Unicef declined to provide any information on the vitamin A campaign, saying it was “immune to any criminal investigation”.

Kar quotes Unicef official John Gil Martin and his colleagues as saying that they would not provide any information on the campaign, which had been sponsored by the global agency, unless the external affairs ministry asked them to. The report says they remained adamant despite being assured that the inquiry commission was not conducting a “criminal investigation”.

Unicef’s Delhi-based spokesperson Geeta Athreya said over phone from Lucknow that her organisation had not violated the law in any way. “My opinion is the same as those of senior Unicef officials. Unicef has not broken the law of the land.”

According to the 23-page CID report, a copy of which has been made available to The Telegraph, negligence by health workers was the reason for the death of a seven-month-old child who had been administered vitamin A. It recommends registration of a criminal case under Section 336 of the IPC against the health workers concerned.

With Unicef allegedly refusing to help Kar, the CID official relied on documents provided by the state health directorate to ascertain the extent of the global agency’s involvement in the vitamin drive.

Gauhati High Court had instituted the inquiry in response to a PIL seeking an independent probe into the botched campaign. Bijan Mahajan and Raju Pradhan, both high court lawyers, filed the petition.

Kar states in his report that he chose not to move the external affairs ministry for permission to interrogate Unicef officials because that would have delayed the investigation. “It would have been a long-drawn process to obtain the permission of the ministry of external affairs to question officers of the Unicef and obtain the required documents from them. So I decided to rely on the documents submitted by the health directorate and go ahead with the inquiry.”

The report says that in the absence of any guideline to distinguish between sick and healthy children while administering vitamin A, any child who was brought to a booth was given the micro-nutrient regardless of whether he or she was suffering from any illness. “This was an error not so much at the local and state level as much as it was in the very conception of the programme.”

The report states that the administration of vitamin A to children in the age group of 1 to 5 years was not, per se, the cause of the illness or death. However, it adds that “it is reasonable to presume that the existing ailments coupled with the admitted state of malnourishment of the affected children got compounded with the toxicity of the vitamin A solution, producing an effect that the child concerned was unable to bear”.

Kar recommends that pending an exhaustive study, there should be a system of screening sick children before administering vitamin A.

“Unicef, the World Health Organisation and the Union health ministry and the state health department may conduct a fresh study of the effect of the moderately toxic vitamin A solution on seriously ill children.”

The Tarun Gogoi government had instituted inquiries by the joint secretary of health and the director of health services. The Assam Human Rights Commission, too, had conducted an investigation into the vitamin A drive.

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