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Cambodia Struggles With Maternal Deaths

One night last week, Mith Saron, 48, and his pregnant wife, Vorn Yeoun, 38, went to a referral hospital in Pailin.

Vorn Yeoun was ready to give birth, Mith Saron said in a recent interview, but the hospital attendants refused to admit her without a $25 delivery fee. It was around 10 pm, so Mith Saron promised to pay the next morning. Still an attendant asked for $1.25 to call in a team of doctors. Mith Saron did not have that much money.

The attendant, who said he was poor too, did not call the doctors. By morning, Mith Saron, said, Vorn Yeoun and her unborn child were dead.

For all its development over the past few years, Cambodia has been unable to lower its maternal death rate. Its death rate was higher in 2005 than in 1997.

“Five women per day die giving life,” Douglas Broderick, UN resident coordinator, told members of the National Assembly last week. The figure has remained the same since 2000, he said.

Cambodia had 473 deaths for every 100,000 live births in 2005, an increase from 437 in 100,000 in 1997, according to the most recent government figures.

The increasing number of deaths is above the average for developing countries, and, Broderick said, is the highest number in Southeast Asia.

But not all maternal deaths are the fault of doctors or hospitals, said Nhiek Bun Chop, head of Battambang province’s health department. Some women ignore prenatal care, making their pregnancies more difficult, sometimes dying as a result, he said.

Krouy Leang Sim, undersecretary of state for the Ministry of Health, said the government is trying to make sure every woman is able to deliver at health centers, which improve odds for survival.

The ministry is setting up a national network of houses, where women who are expecting to give birth but live far from medical centers can stay.

Still, some health officials say Cambodia will not meet its development goals, if the pace of improvement for women giving birth does not increase.