A few years ago while studying the oral health of school children in Kerala, India, one of the schools I visited was a boarding school for orphaned children. It was obvious from just observing these children and through dental examinations that the health of these orphaned children was a lot worse than children from the non-orphanage schools in my study. While at the time I was doing my masters degree and did not have the liberty to pursue this issue further, I made a mental note that when I had settled down in my career I would re-visit this issue. Fast forward to 2013 (five years since I visited the orphanage in Kerala) and we (my wife and I) have set up the Health in Orphanages Project (HOPe), with support from University researchers and community partners, to explore the health of children residing in orphanages in India.
So what is an orphan – United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) defines an orphan as not only a child who has lost one or both parents but also those who have lost a father but have a surviving mother or have lost their mother but have a surviving father (1, 2). It is estimated that, as of 2010, there were 132 million orphaned children across the globe (about 2% of the world’s population), a shocking number. Of these children, 69 million were located in Asia, 53 million in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 10 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. India alone is home to 32 million orphaned children (~ 2.6% of India’s population or 7.5% of India’s child population). Yet it is quite rare for the local populace in India to encounter these children in their normal lives. The social structure in India has ensured that these children are a hidden and socially stigmatised community.
Photo of an orphanage from my last trip to India
In spite of such large numbers the available information on the health of children residing in orphanages, particularly in India, is very limited. The available information gave us some insight into the health of these children but again highlighted the need to work with this hidden section of the community that we call the ‘disadvantaged among the disadvantaged’. A parent-child relationship is important for the mental and physical development of the child and the absence of this relationship can be detrimental to their health. Such a separation can negatively impact on various aspects of their development, particularly in relation to their psychosocial, emotional and cognitive skills. The social disadvantage is due to the lack of social and cultural identity that growing up in a family would provide. A joint report by UNICEF, UNAIDS & USAID on orphaned children state that institutional care such as orphanages can be detrimental to the child’s development as they socially isolate the children, discourage autonomy, put the children at risk of losing their family and community identities, and fail to provide any mechanism to support a child’s emotional or mental needs (1). As a result of these issues, orphaned children generally have poor oral health; poor mental health; are malnourished; have low immunity; are prone to medical conditions such as HIV, cardiomyopathy, fetal alcohol syndrome, hepatitis C, otitis media & congenital adrenal hyperplasia; and recurrent episodes of diarrhoea, fever & cough (3, 5-10). These children, particularly girls, are at a high sexual risk which includes having sex at an earlier age, pregnancy and the risk of contracting HIV/AIDS (11-15). Also common among orphaned children are behavioural and cognitive issues such as thought problems, rebellious nature, aggression and being withdrawn (6, 7, 17). A study of children in Romanian orphanages found that due to ‘global neglect’ (when deprivation occurs in more than one domain of child development, such as language, touch and family support) the brain size of orphaned 3-year-olds was significantly smaller when compared to that of a normal child of the same age (16).
So it is quite evident that these children face additional challenges that impact on their health and wellbeing. However, without sufficient country/location specific evidence local program planners and policy makers will not be able to make a case for targeted interventions. We aim to provide this evidence and use the information from this research to determine the future direction of the project. Our first stage will be to explore the health issues affecting children residing in orphanages in the State of Kerala, which is located on the south-west coast of India. At present there are approximately 400 registered orphanages in the State of Kerala alone, with on average 100 children per orphanage (18). We envisage that through HOPe we will be able to provide the evidence needed to progress towards healthier and more socially inclusive environments for these children.
About the author: Bradley Christian is a Research Fellow at the Jack Brockhoff Child Health and Wellbeing Program, working on Teeth Tales – a community based oral health promotion intervention for pre-school children from a refugee and migrant background. Brad is a dentist with specialist training in Dental Public Health whose research interests are around social disadvantage, children and oral health.
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