The Village Warriors
Since January, Aaroogya has has created awareness about cancer among two lakh rural womenBy Rosy Jose
Geeta, 32, lost both her mother and grandfather to cancer and she vividly recalls the agonising years of treatment her mother underwent at the hospital. In spite of being aware of the problem, she cannot get herself regularly screened, because in doing so, she would apparently bring shame to her family. Her family believes that no decent and respectful woman would cross the dehaleej (threshold) of the house. This is the story of women in rural India, women who have no access to education, with no family or societal support (where body shaming is regular, with a high probability of social disgrace) and no access to quality healthcare (which is either expensive or simply, unavailable). These women make up 48 per cent of the rural population of India but are left to their fate. This is exactly the problem that the NGO, Aaroogya, wants to tackle: to save these women from what they consider a natural phenomenon or worse, a punishment from god.
Aaroogya follows a door-to-door healthcare model that focuses exclusively on Tier 3 and 4 centres. Ignorance and social stigma are the biggest barriers in these areas, besides having no easy access to healthcare providers. This conditions people to live with the problem rather than to find a solution. “Sometimes we are thrown out of people’s houses. They just don’t understand that we have only their best interests in mind” says Dr Priyanjali Datta, founder of Aaroogya Carnage Breast Cancer Foundation. After narrowing in on a vulnerable location, Aaroogya sets to work within its framework of the 5 steps matrix; this includes door-to-door education and awareness building, collection of primary data and counselling, progressing to clinical screening and examination at zero cost. Aaroogya also offers telemedicine with specialists for extended consultations, AI-based breast cancer screening and mobilisation of patient to partner hospitals. This multi-pronged approach is probably the most holistic way to deal with the problem at hand.
“Working With Aaroogya Makes Me Feel Like A Warrior, Like I Can Make A Humongous Difference In The Lives Of People Who Are Affected By Or Are Susceptible To The Menace Called Cancer.”Dr Nikhita Mittal, Core team member, Aaroogya
As part of awareness building, Team Aaroogya conducts training sessions in schools and among self help groups. “Working with Aaroogya makes me feel like a warrior, like I can make a humongous difference in the lives of people who are affected by or are susceptible to the menace called cancer,” says core team member Dr Nikhita Mittal. Aaroogya collaborates with data mining scientists to examine the data collected during surveys, and prepare various reports including factors such as demographics, lifestyle, education, awareness, et al, to better understand the rural ecosystem. These reports are used as the basis for articles in peer reviewed journals and by government planning bodies to build the required healthcare infrastructure for a better rural India.
Aaroogya especially focuses on Triple Negative Breast Cancer, a form of cancer our young women are highly susceptible to, due to the Indian genetic makeup. This particular variant of cancer is very aggressive and nonresponsive to conventional treatment methods and hence, harder to treat. Only if caught early does a patient have any chance of survival. To tackle this, Aaroogya, with the help of clinically designed pictographic aids, guides women to perform breast selfexamination (BSE) every month. As a child, Dr Datta lost her grandmother due to a delayed diagnosis of lung cancer. It was her first brush with cancer and the realisation that something needs to be done to thwart this metaphorical demon. The resolve only became stronger when years later, her mother was diagnosed with a pre-cancerous stage, essential thrombocytosis. In 2017, Dr Datta, with the help of Dr Dhruv Kacker, co-founded Aaroogya, with the purpose of redefining the preventive healthcare system.
Aaroogya’s advisory board boasts an esteemed group of mentors, from Padma Shri Prof. Dr Pramod Kumar Julka, management expert and sustainability expert Ronald van het Hof, and anthropologist Mary Reisel to biomedical expert Dr Sovan Sakar and gynaecologist Dr Kaberi Bannerjee. Following its inception in 2017, the team has so far covered Meghalaya, Assam, West Bengal, Delhi NCR, Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. “With the launch of Ayushman Bharat, a new vigour has been infused in us,” says Dr Datta. “We are scaling up now to go back to our targeted operational states, to take a complete diagnostics infrastructure to their doorstep which is a revolution in the space of rural healthcare in India.” Team Aaroogya wants to reach out to 1 million women in the next five years. It is looking to integrate IoT and AI solutions to establish scalable productivity. It is important to develop a system which can work even in an offline mode, since connectivity is a big issue in our rural villages. Aaroogya is still at its nascent stages, and is bootstrapped. “We are looking at investors, who want to make a difference in the future of India,” says Dr Datta.