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Last Updated: Sunday, 25 April, 2004, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Bringing medical help to India's poor

By Paul Smith

rural India
Mobile units visit villages

Neelam Makhijani tells BBC News Online about her work providing free treatment to India's elderly poor.

There are 75 million people aged over 60 living in India, and 90% of the country's population live without adequate medical or financial support, according to Help the Aged.

The charity now helps run 55 mobile medical units which go into rural areas and slums and provide free medical care to older people on their doorsteps.

Neelam Makhijani, who worked on the programme with sister organisation HelpAge India, said: "It is quite sad. The government has promised healthcare for all by 2020, but I think we are a far cry from that."
They think you get old, you go blind and you die
Neelam Makhijani

Ms Makhijani, who worked in Delhi, Bombay - now known as Mumbai - and surrounding areas, added: "There are small clinics set up, but the doctors don't go there.

"There is supposed to be a nurse, but they don't show up. There is no medicine and no equipment.

"The Bombay slums are bigger than some European cities. You could be queuing up at a hospital for days."

Dr Patricia Day Bidinger at The Institute for Rural Health Studies, based in Hyderabad, agrees.

She said: "Healthcare is pretty basic in the rural areas. It has improved in the 27 years I have been here, but they still have a long, long way to go."


The mobile medical units go to the same place at the same time each week and give the elderly people waiting there seven days of medication to keep them going until the next visit.

Common conditions are colds, fever, arthritis, diabetes and high blood pressure. Sanitation and hygiene are poor so stomach and chest infections are also frequent.

The drugs are all brands from international pharmaceutical companies and are free to the elderly people.

Ms Makhijani said: "At that age they don't get cured, but they get their pain relieved."

The charity also does 2,000 cataract operations a year.

"A lot of the older people don't think it is a curable disease," she said. "They think you get old, you go blind and you die."

Prevention schemes detect people getting diabetes and other conditions and try to curb their development.

There are also economic projects, including making carpets and spices, to help people support themselves.

And for people who are very old and ill and cannot move, there is an "adopt a granny" scheme where they are given food and basic necessities.

When granny breaks the neck of her femur, grandpa is absolutely flummoxed. They don't have enough money, they don't have a support service
Dr Patricia Day Bidinger
Dr Bidinger said the breakdown of the traditional family unit has made life harder for many elderly people.

"You used to have somebody available to deal with granny and who loved granny. Now you have nuclear families and granny and grandpa are left behind," she said.

"When granny breaks the neck of her femur, grandpa is absolutely flummoxed. They don't have enough money, they don't have a support service."


Despite these hardships, Ms Makhijani said of her experience with HelpAge India: "It started as a job, then I went out into the villages to meet the beneficiaries, and you get so involved that it takes your life over."

She said it was the reaction of the elderly people receiving treatment that had the biggest impact on her.

"It is traditional in India to touch the feet of elders and have blessings," she said.

"One day I was standing by a clinic, giving out rice and pulses. This older woman actually bent down and touched my feet."

She added: "What we give them is such a small amount - it is a couple of pounds. But for giving them these little things, it is like you are a god."

To donate to the "Spirit of Seva" campaign, which is run by Help the Aged in association with UK Asian newspaper Eastern Eye, call 020 7239 1996, email seva@hta.org.uk or visit www.helptheaged.org.uk

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