Afghanistan: maternal health factors improve, but high death rate continues – UN report

Midwives being trained in Afghanistan

26 January 2009 – Despite a sharp increase in the number of midwives, health facilities, female health workers and educated girls in Afghanistan, the strife-beset country still has the world’s second highest maternal mortality rate, United Nations officials said today.

Early marriage – often under the age of 15 – and lack of access to medical intervention until complications become severe are two factors that have hampered improvement in the situation, officials from the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) said at a press conference in Kabul.

“With this situation, it is a long road for Afghanistan to achieve the Millennium Development Goals of reducing maternal mortality,” UNICEF Representative Catherine Mbengue said, referring to goals to reduce global ills by 2015 known as MDGs, as the panellists introduced this year’s report on the State of the World’s Children on maternal and newborn health.

“The reality is that for every 100,000 births, 1,600 women die,” WHO Representative Peter Graaf said, adding: “Given the large average number of pregnancies for Afghan women over their lifetimes, this figure translates into a one in eight chance for any Afghan woman to die of pregnancy-related complications.”

Mr. Graaf said that in order to save mothers’ lives, the UN agencies are working with the Ministry of Public Heath and other local and international partners to increase access to skilled birth attendants, which have increased in the country from 467 to 2,167 since 2002.

However, 4,500 skilled midwives were needed in order to cover 90 per cent of the country’s needs, he said.

In addition, UNFPA Representative Prasanna Gunasekera stressed that saving the lives of mothers and newborns required more than just medical intervention. “It also requires an environment that empowers women and respects their rights,” she said.

Education, in particular, was important for other health factors, being the most powerful way to break the cycle of poverty, boost knowledge of nutrition and care and postpone marital pregnancy to a healthier age level, she added.

Girls who give birth before age 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, and a child born to a girl under 18 has a 60 per cent greater chance of dying in the first year of life than one born to a 19 year-old, she said.


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