EDITORIAL 2/ IMMUNE TO ERROAR 

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By The Telegraph Online
  • Published 15.11.01
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Plunging into a blame game is a cynical way of responding to a human tragedy. Neither UNICEF nor the Assam government covered itself in glory by trying to hold each other responsible for the tragic turn to the pulse vitamin A programme in the state. It was shocking that the vaccination programme, which was meant to reduce risks of child mortality and improve immunization, resulted in hundreds of children falling sick. At least one death . of a two-year-old child . was confirmed in the first reports. UNICEF's disclaimer that there was nothing wrong either with the vaccine or the dosage seemed to have come too early. True, the programme had been implemented successfully not only in several other states but also in many parts of Assam. One would think UNICEF should have first tried to ascertain how and why things went wrong in the affected parts of Assam. There were two departures from the past programmes. The dosage was increased from 2.5 to 5 millilitre and the vaccine was administered in cups, not with spoons as before, to avoid contamination. Some experts suspect that the health workers implementing the programme had not been adequately trained to familiarize themselves with the changes.Their other complaint, that the children could have been actually given an overdose by inexperienced health workers, needs to be closely examined. But the way the state health minister,Mr Bhumidhar Barman,sought to pass the blame to UNICEF and the .paramedics. also looks like an appalling abdication of responsibility. It is incredible that a health minister is trying to wash the government's hands of a UNICEF project by blaming semi-skilled health workers who after all are part of the state's healthcare system. This is not the first time that a vaccination or immunization programme for children has been caught in a tragic controversy. About a year ago, tragedy struck a pulse polio programme in some districts of West Bengal. Obviously, not enough care is always taken to ensure that such programmes are implemented with extreme caution and foolproof expertise. Both the Assam government, which has ordered an administrative inquiry, and UNICEF should spare no efforts to find out where exactly things went wrong. In fact, instead of apportioning blame, they should join hands in the investigation because the risks are too incalculably costly and leave no room for oneupmanship. UNICEF's local managers should realize that their responsibilities extend far beyond funding such programmes. If a state lacks the infrastructure necessary to properly implement these, it should be UNICEF's duty to point out the lacunae and get things in place before the projects are launched. And, since Mr Barman himself has cast doubts on the expertise of the paramedics,he has an urgent task of upgrading their training.