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By Anjana Pasricha
New Delhi
03 December 2007

A U.N. representative says more women in India die during pregnancy or childbirth than in any other country in the world. The U.N. official says India must improve its public health system to cut the rate of maternal mortality. From New Delhi, Anjana Pasricha has this report.

Activists from over 20 organizations hold a candle light vigil to celebrate the South Asian Women's Day in New Delhi, 30 Nov 2007
Activists from over 20 organizations hold a candle light vigil to celebrate the South Asian Women's Day in New Delhi, 30 Nov 2007
India accounts for 20 percent of the world's maternal deaths, with a woman dying every five minutes.

The U.N.'s Paul Hunt says the rate of maternal deaths is "shocking" for a middle income country, and many times higher than in other countries.

"Why is the Indian rate six times worse than **'s, eight times worse than Cuba's, whose people have been living under an embargo for some decades? And why is it 14 times worse than Chile's?" he said.

Hunt spoke to reporters in New Delhi after visiting two states, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, to assess the state of maternal health in India.

He says the government has taken steps to reduce maternal mortality, and the numbers are declining, but still remain "alarming."

The U.N. official says one of the reasons for the high maternal mortality is what he calls the "massive crippling crisis in India's health workforce."

He says most of India's one and a half million health practitioners are in the private sector. As a result, life saving care is often unavailable to women giving birth, particularly in rural areas.

"It is clear than some public sector health facilities are grossly inadequate, dilapidated, ill-equipped, understaffed and offer extremely poor services," added Hunt. "If you are about to deliver a baby, they must be among the last places you would wish to go."

He says the government has doubled the funds allotted to the public health sector, but health budgets sometimes remain unutilized.

The U.N. official says the government should establish autonomous commissions to regulate the public and private health sectors to ensure better services.

The U.N. has set a target of reducing maternal deaths by 75 percent from levels in 1990. About half a million women die every year in childbirth or pregnancy - most of those deaths are preventable.

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