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American India Foundation Symposium addresses maternal and newborn health in India

As long-awaited rain streamed down outside, several hundred physicians, entrepreneurs and philanthropists gathered inside the medical school's Li Ka Shing Center for Learning and Knowledge last week to make inroads on a persistent, troubling problem: Hundreds of thousands of newborns and mothers continue to die each year in India.

The American India Foundation partnered with Stanford Medicine to host the symposium on maternal and newborn health, which featured more than a dozen speakers, including Dean Lloyd Minor, MD and Bollywood star Madhuri Dixit.

"Our vision here at Stanford is to lead the biomedical revolution in precision health," Minor said, adding that social justice and social empowerment are core principles of precision health, a form of health care that is predictive, preventative and personalized. Precision health is both high-tech and "high-touch" and its reach can extend to developing nations like India, Minor said.

Dixit, a well-known actress and dancer, added some star power to the discussion. As attendees snapped smartphone shots, Dixit, seated beside her husband, cardiologist Ram Nene, MD, explained how her family had moved to India from Denver several years ago, allowing her children to experience both relative anonymity in the United States and fame in India. And, through her work with the United Nations and other organizations, Dixit has also had the opportunity to work with programs to improve girl's health, fight violence against women and promote breast feeding.

"Poverty [in India] is really abject poverty," Dixit said. It's challenging to give birth, widespread discrimination persists against girls, and women face risks from sexual violence. "It's a very, very difficult environment for a woman, and she has to fight all those circumstances."

The differences between rural India and urban India exacerbate the problems, Nene said. In urban India, there are jobs and access to health care, while in rural India, where about 70 percent of the population lives, there are few physicians and villagers struggle with to find clean water and enough food, he pointed out.

"We need people who will take the message forward and go to every house and explain every little thing," Dixit said. "We also need low-cost innovations... but it cannot be just technology. It has to have hands on it and have a human touch."

The human touch comes in part through village health workers, known as sahiyas. One sahiya who works with the AIF's Maternal & Newborn Survival Initiative, or MANSI, told attendees about her work. She spoke in Hindi, which was translated by Charu Johri, the AIF's director of public health, and by Vinod Bhutani, MD, a Stanford professor of pediatrics. Mamta Mahato unpacked the bag she uses to care for woman and infants in the village, showing the audience the tools she uses to weigh babies and to take their temperature, as well as the forms she fills out to document the care. "In the last six years, she has become the g0-to person in the village, and that brings her pride and joy," Johri and Bhutani translated.

The event also featured a panel discussion on health-care innovation and on related research at Stanford Medicine. "The hope that we all have is that everyone attending gets to be not only educated, but also inspired," said Lata Krishnan, chair of the AIF. "Perhaps you'll have your own ideas."

Physician-author Abraham Verghese, MD, had been scheduled to speak at the event, but due to the weather was unable to attend.

Previously: Abraham Verghese reflects on upcoming American India Foundation Symposium and American India Foundation Symposium on maternal and newborn health to be held at Stanford
Photo of Ram Nene and Madhuri Dixit by Paul Keitz

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