JOHANNESBURG, 2 August (IRIN) - Although greater efforts have been made to curb malaria and HIV/AIDS in Malawi, not enough is being done to tackle the country's alarming maternal death rate, says a coalition of local NGOs.
Maternal mortality stood at 1,800 per 100,000 live births in 2003 - the second worst rate in the world after Sierra Leone, according to the United Nations.
In an analysis of the 2005/06 health budget the Economic Justice Network (EJN), a coalition of around 70 civil rights bodies, recommended that the authorities implement a "deliberate policy" to address the problem.
"The problem is urgent, but our analysis shows that the issue is not given special attention in budgetary allocations. Yes, AIDS and malaria should also be dealt with but, given the situation regarding maternal health, something drastic needs to be done," EJN executive director Collins Magalasi told IRIN.
He acknowledged that climbing HIV infection rates had compounded the problem, but added, "the government can do much more to make sure that women have adequate access to healthcare".
Malawi's ailing health services have been hard hit by drug shortages due to budget cuts, while an exodus of medical personnel to richer western nations is threatening to cripple the already struggling sector.
The Nurses and Midwives Council of Malawi estimates that 650 nurses have left the country since 2000, and although 8,000 nurses are registered with the council, only around 4,000 of them are employed.
"What is needed is more money for trained birth attendants, especially in rural areas. The government also has to address some traditional beliefs, which prevent women from seeking professional medical care. We find that most of these deaths occur among communities where midwives are not trained to deal with birth complications," Magalasi explained.
Dr Wesley Sangala, permanent secretary in the department of health, told IRIN the government had already embarked on several training courses to improve skills in the health sector but had not set aside a "special fund" to deal with maternal health, as it was a "cross-cutting" issue that needed to be dealt in the broader context of women's health.
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