School Health Ambassadors Initiative: when it comes into effect, will be big step towards societal wellness

Almost two years after its launch in April 2018, national School Health Programme (SHP) under Ayushman Bharat, moved a significant step forward last month with the release of curriculum for nodal teachers along with constitution of a National Resource Group (NRG) of 40 members by NCERT on adolescence education under its School Health Ambassadors Initiative. SHP was launched in a bid to foster preventive and promotive health and wellness among school going children in line with Sustainable Development Goals (SDG- 3) and also to meet the objectives of National Health Policy (NHP) 2017 on investment in school health by incorporating health education as part of the curriculum, promoting hygiene and healthy practices within the school environs. SHP is a joint scheme of union ministries of HRD and health & family welfare.

The first phase of implementation of “Health and Wellness Ambassadors” initiative will be in all the public upper primary, secondary and senior secondary schools of 117 aspirational districts. Subsequently, remaining districts will be taken up in the second year.

What is quite significant is the fact that sex or adolescent education, which despite being fiercely advocated and opposed in equal measure over the years and ending without being part of school curriculum, will be making a debut in schools in India through this initiative along with mental health, prevention of substance abuse, violence prevention, road safety, nutrition, meditation and yoga at secondary level.  The NRG will train the State Resource Group which will comprise of 2 persons each from SCERT, SIHFW and DIET from each selected district at the 5 Regional Institute of Education (RIE) at Shillong, Mysore, Bhopal, Bhubaneshwar and Ajmer.

 As proposed in School Health Ambassadors Initiative, two teachers preferably from science or physical education with good communications skills will be designated as Health and Wellness Ambassadors and they will hold a weekly hour-long age-appropriate informative preventive and promotive health activity based sessions around for 24 weeks in an academic year.  The Health and Wellness Ambassadors will be supported by two students of each class as ‘Health and Wellness Messengers’ who would help them facilitate the initiatives and activities under the school health component.

Union minister of HRD while releasing the curriculum said that education apart from knowledge is also to inculcate be­havior which promotes consciousness about good health and the teachers are the best mentors for the children and now they will also act as “Health and Wellness Ambassadors.”

Educationists while welcoming the initiative feel if implemented sincerely the new program has the potential of transforming not just children but even families. “The success will depend on how active and involved are the two teachers and students. With reporting and monitoring, I believe this initiative will definitely consolidate the existing wellness activities by adding events to the integrated school calendar and projects of health and wellness won’t be eyewashes anymore, “ says Alka Kapur, Principal of Modern Public School, Shalimar Bagh in Delhi.

According to Dr. Harsh Vardhan, union minister of health & family welfare (MoHFW), NCERT developed curriculum and training materials for training of nodal teachers and facilitators guide in consultation his ministry. Growing up healthy, emotional wellbeing and mental health, interpersonal relationships, values and responsible citizenship, gender equality, nutrition, health and sanitation, promotion of healthy lifestyles, prevention and management of substance misuse, reproductive health and HIV prevention, safety and security against violence and injuries, and promotion of safe use of internet, media and social media are the 11 identified themes.

With India being home to 47.3 crore children (0–18 years) comprising 39 percent of the country’s total population (Census 2011) and around 26 crore children in the age group of 6-18 years attending schools, a preventive and promotive health and wellness initiative is perhaps overdue. For millions of young people, the onset of adolescence brings not only changes to their bodies, but also new vulnerabilities due to limited access to health information, particularly on sexual and reproductive health, injuries and violence and digital challenges (e.g. cyber-bullying and pornography, Internet addiction). As per National Mental Health Survey 2015-16, prevalence of mental disorders in age group13-17 years was 7.3% and nearly equal in both genders. Approximately 54 % of the girls and 29% of boys in the age group of 15-19 years are anaemic in India (NFHS-4). A large proportion of girls are coerced into unwanted sex or marriage, putting them at risk of unwanted pregnancies, unsafe abortions, sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

As per World Health Organization (WHO) estiamtes India has also the highest burden of soil-transmitted helminths (STH) in the world, with 220 million children aged 1-14 years estimated to be at risk of worm infestations. NFHS 4 data also shows that in the age 15-19 yrs 4.2% girls and 4.8% boys are obese while 42% girls and 44% boys are thin. It is important to educate the children early in life, about their health and the right behaviours, so that they lead a healthy life and realize their full potential.

While roll out of Health and Wellness Ambassadors initiative is a natural progression of meeting the SDGs (3 & 4), given the shortage of teachers and burden of non-academic work on existing teachers, it is imperative for national planners to look at both capacity building as well as recruitment of quality teachers on a priority basis. Even creation of a separate cadre of teacher assistants with appropriate training can help in administering jobs like MDM and others leaving more time for teachers’ academic work. It is equally important the initiative of the two ministries get support from states for making it a success. Let’s wish it the best!

…By Autar Nehru