Maternal mortality in South Asia is second highest in the world, UNICEF says

27 July 2005

While South Asia has made spectacular technological advances, high mortality rates rob children and women in the region of their full potential, a senior United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) official said today.

Speaking at the launching at UNICEF House of the Mahbub ul Haq Human Development Centre’s “Human Development in South Asia 2004: The Health Challenge,” UNICEF Deputy Director Rima Salah said, “The statistics are shocking. One out of every three child deaths occurs in South Asia.”

“Two-thirds of the malnourished children live in the region and infant mortality is still high. In a region where high mortality and morbidity rates battle to rob children and women of their full potential – every day, the focus on health could not be more appropriate or timely,” she added.

The report graphically captures the strong link between poverty, gender inequity and the poor survival rates and wellbeing of the region’s children and women. A poor child often will not be immunized or go to school, most likely will be malnourished, lack access to clean water and be prey to exploitative practices that jeopardize their wellbeing and most of them will be girls, Dr Salah said.

As countries make an effort to reach the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), including halving extreme poverty and hunger, offering universal education and combating major diseases by 2015, a narrow focus on sectoral issues is no longer the solution and, indeed, could be part of the problem, she said. “In laying out the multi-sectoral approaches needed to ensure progress, the publication makes a valuable contribution in our way forward.”

Former senior UN Development Programme (UNDP) official Mahbub ul Haq was the chief architect of UNDP’s annual “Human Development Report” as a way to look beyond gross national product (GNP) and income at the multi-dimensional impact of wealth and poverty on such issues as health, education and gender equality.

Dr. Salah said UNICEF, partnering with Governments, civil society and other UN agencies, has invested in South Asian health and nutrition for five decades.

“After nearly a decade of monumental immunization campaigns, reaching over 150 million children under age 5, we have seen dramatic increase in the rates of fully immunized children rising from 5 per cent in 1980 to about 65 per cent in 2004. This increase in coverage has laid the foundation for polio eradication, neonatal tetanus elimination and measles reduction for which South Asia can be justifiably proud today,” she said.

The adult HIV prevalence in South Asia is below 1 per cent, but is still 5.2 million people living with HIV/AIDS, with an estimated 5.1 million of them in India, she said. India is considered the epicentre of the South Asian epidemic and the second largest worldwide in terms of number after South Africa with 5.6 million.

There are now 300 centres offering programmes to prevent HIV infection in young people and mother-child transmission, however, Dr. Salah said.

“Our hope in UNICEF is that this publication will strengthen the process of ‘dialogue for action’ with all stakeholders in human development and that these discussions are translated into more concrete policies, strategies and funding for the improvement of the lives of the women and children in Asia,” she said.


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