Thursday, January 29, 2009

India grapples with high maternal death rate

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A mother carries her son to a health centre in Kushbari village, about 315 km (195 miles) north of the eastern Indian city of Kolkata, November 11, 2008.[Agencies]

PURULIA, India – In Sindri village in a dirt-poor district of eastern India, Manohar Kumbhakar and his family are still mourning the death of his wife, who died in childbirth aged 25 while being treated by a local quack.

"I don't know what he did to my daughter-in-law. The quack kept me outside the room and later, after almost two hours, he said she had to be taken to a hospital," said Kumbhakar's mother, Helubala. "He later denied he had any role in the treatment."

Every year, about 78,000 mothers die in childbirth and from complications of pregnancy in India, according to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

The figures illustrate how poor women in rural India have largely been left behind by India's economic boom which has lifted millions of people out of poverty.

India's maternal mortality rate stands at 450 per 100,000 live births, against 540 in 1998-1999. The figures are way behind India's Millennium Development Goals which call for a reduction to 109 by 2015, according to UNICEF.

By comparison, fellow Asian giant China's maternal mortality rate has dropped to below 50.

UNICEF's 2009 State of the World's Children report, which was released in January, said India's fight to lower maternal mortality rates is failing due to growing social inequalities and shortages in primary healthcare facilities.

Millions of births are not attended by doctors, nurses or trained midwives, despite India's booming economy which grew at nearly 9 percent in each of the past three years.

Around two-thirds of Indian women still deliver babies at home. Women from the lower castes suffer the most as they are often denied access to basic healthcare.

"It (the maternal mortality rate) is definitely not going down fast enough," Avinash Kumar, Campaign and Policy Coordinator for Oxfam India, told Reuters.

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