JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - A global effort to reduce deaths during pregnancy and childbirth is likely to fail unless action is taken to improve health care in the developing world, the United Nations Children's Fund said on Thursday.
More than half a million expectant and new mothers die each year, most in Africa and Asia where obstetrical and post-natal care is often unavailable and many pregnancies are complicated by HIV.
The number of maternal deaths has remained largely unchanged over the past two decades and has made it more difficult to reduce child mortality. A newborn has less chance of surviving if its mother dies during or shortly after childbirth.
"Progress has been made in reducing child mortality, but much more must be done especially in addressing maternal and newborn health," Ann Veneman, UNICEF's executive director, said at the launch of a report on child and maternal health.
"The world must approach this task with a shared sense of urgency and a collaborative response."
The U.N. has called for a 75 percent reduction in the maternal mortality rate by 2015 as part of its Millennium Development Goals programme. But nations, especially in the developing world, are falling far short of this mark.
About 99 percent of the estimated 536,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2005 occurred outside industrialised nations, more than half of them in Africa, according to the UNICEF report.
Women in poor nations were more than 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than those in the developed world and children were almost 14 times more likely to die during the first month of life.
UNICEF said many of the deaths could be reduced by improving family planning and post natal-care and ensuring that trained medical personnel were on hand for deliveries.
About four in 10 of all births worldwide are not attended by a doctor or other health professional, the report said.
Providing HIV drugs to infected women also would improve the chances of survival for new mothers and their babies.
Conflicts and political crises, however, have made it more difficult to tackle the problem, officials said.
South African Health Minister Barbara Hogan told reporters neighbouring Zimbabwe's health care system had collapsed and there was a shortage of HIV drugs in the country, which has suffered an economic meltdown.
According to UNICEF, the riskiest place to give birth was Niger, where the chance of dying in pregnancy or childbirth over the course of a woman's lifetime is one in seven. The safest place was Ireland where the risk was one in 47,600.
Liberia had the highest rate of neonatal mortality at 66 deaths per 1,000 live births.