Momentum in Calcutta

Dear Friends of Calcutta Kids,

I’m hardly an unbiased observer, but one can’t help but be impressed with the extraordinary sense of momentum, the sheer energy that’s now being generated by the program. One feels this not only among the community health workers who are simply not allowing any pregnant woman or young child to fall through the cracks, not only among the data analysis team members systematically tracking progress and effectiveness of each of the program components, but also among the beneficiaries themselves: the young mothers exhibiting such pride when they observe their children’s weight gain, the new parents beaming when they that all their efforts have paid off and their newborn is born healthy and with adequate birthweight.

That’s pretty qualitative. There has been a quantum leap in the systematic gathering of monitoring data during the past year – and there will be lots to share in the months ahead. Here’s an example which I find pretty dramatic: The data analysis team has been comparing the effects of the Calcutta Kids program with those reported in the National Family Health Survey for urban slums more generally in this state. While one third of the infants in the slums of West Bengal are born low birthweight (less than 2.5 kg or 5.5 pounds), the Calcutta Kids program has been able to cut this figure nearly in half – to 17%. The program also has been able to reduce severe malnutrition in young children by 25% below the state average, a significant improvement in an area still ridden by such environmental hardship. You should have seen the proud smiles on the faces of the community health workers when those findings were announced!

Another example of this “culture of curiosity” has been an analysis of families with kids who are severely malnourished. What are the characteristics of these households? What do these families have in common, and how are they unique? This information will be invaluable as Calcutta Kids seeks to eliminate severe malnutrition (which places the child at such risk and has irreversible consequences) from these slums. There is even a plan to examine the pathogens present in these children – work being initiated with the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases.

And another observation: It’s been clear to the Calcutta Kids for some time that the problems of malnutrition and of low birthweight in India –much worse than in Africa despite India’s rapid economic growth – are symptoms of the lower status of women. Calcutta Kids has been relentless in addressing this problem, working both to empower women in these slums, and to celebrate the female child while actively involvinghusbands and mothers-in-law in the process. And one can begin to feel the change. Women work together more closely. They speak out more confidently. And it seems to me that they’re holding their heads a little higher.

You’ll be pleased to know that as of this month, 850 families in the slum are covered by Calcutta Kids’ low cost health insurance (costing less than $2 per person per year). Calcutta Kids is looking for new and creative ways to increase both enrollment and renewals so that the tragic pattern – so frequent in these slums – of families forced into severe debt when serious illness strikes, can become a thing of the past. The insurance program received lots of timely advice from Susan Richardson, former vice president of United States Liability Insurance Group, a Berkshire Hathaway company who spent 6 weeks with the insurance team.

And, finally, the very impressive Calcutta Kids Diarrhea Treatment Center (DTC) is ready to begin operations. In addition to the Center’s life-saving efforts, the documentation of effects through pre-post surveys will offer considerable insight into the cost-effectiveness of this approach for India’s slums.(You should see the new DTC doctor. She’s a house on fire!)

And this work is not going unnoticed. During my time in Kolkata we had visits both from development agencies and from public health experts like Jon Rohde, former director of UNICEF in India and Dilip Mahalanobis, credited with the discovery of Oral Rehydration Solution. All have been curious, as I have been, to fully understand what’s behind the remarkable success being achieved here.

At the beginning of February, the primary public health institution in the state awarded Noah their Founders’ Day Award in recognition of these accomplishments. Noah, in typically humble fashion, passed on the honors to the rest of his team.


Jim Levinson, Vice President

(From February 2, 2011)

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