Maternal deaths nearly triple in Iraq, UN survey shows

Posted: 6 November 2003

The number of women who die of pregnancy and childbirth in Iraq has nearly tripled since 1990, according to a reproductive health survey conducted by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

Bleeding, ectopic pregnancies and prolonged labour are among the causes of the reported 310 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2002, which the study found had risen sharply from 117 deaths in 1989. Miscarriages have also risen, partly due to stress and exposure to chemical contaminants.

Breakdown in security, as well as weakened communication and transport systems, have made access to medical facilities difficult for women. As a result, more women - some 65 per cent - are giving birth at home, the majority without skilled help.

Poor health service

The health system is in desperate need of rehabilitation, warns the UN agency. Many clinics have been damaged and looted, water and electricity supplies have been disrupted and drugs and medical equipment are grossly lacking. While Iraq has a strong cadre of well-qualified health personnel, their skills urgently need to be updated since sanctions limited their access to new scientific findings for over 10 years, according to the survey.

"The reconstruction effort in Iraq will benefit greatly from rapid improvements in the area of reproductive health," said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA's Executive Director. "The health-care infrastructure is still in place, but it needs to be strengthened and updated. UNFPA is committed to this effort."

Between 50-70 per cent of all pregnant women in Iraq suffer from iron-deficiency anaemia, as well as malaria and other problems. Yet, only 60 per cent of women receive some form of prenatal care, down from 78 per cent in 1996.

Teenage pregnancies

Contraceptive rates have also fallen due to a breakdown in supplies. Many women and men are not aware of family planning methods and there has been an increase in unsafe abortions. The survey also noted that Iraq has a very young population - 50 per cent are under age 15 - and teenage pregnancies are on the rise.

"Millions of Iraqi youth are about to enter their reproductive years," said Ms. Obaid. "We must protect their health and provide them with quality information and appropriate services."

The study further pointed to an increase in the incidence of sexual violence and abductions in Baghdad, but said that most cases are not reported or investigated. Health personnel are not trained to deal with the problem and reporting a rape often brings further problems for victims, including social rejection.

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