JOHANNESBURG, South Africa – Girls who give birth before the age of 15 are five times more likely to die in childbirth than women in their 20s, the U.N. said Thursday, focusing its annual children's survey on the health of their mothers.
Every year, 70,000 women between the ages of 15 and 19 die in childbirth or from pregnancy complications, UNICEF director Ann Veneman said at the launch of the organization's annual report.
"This is not only a tragic personal loss for the family; it also leaves a long-term impact on the health and well-being of children and the development of communities and countries," Veneman said.
The 160-page survey paints a bleak picture of the risks of teenage pregnancies, which are prevalent in the developing world.
"The State of the World's Children 2009" says that the younger a girl is when she becomes pregnant, the greater the health risks for her and her infant.
Worldwide, more than 60 million women who are currently aged 20-24 were married before they were 18, with the most child marriages being in South Asia and in Africa.
If a mother is under the age of 18, her infant's risk of dying in its first year of life is 60 percent greater than that of an infant born to a mother older than 19.
In addition, the report says adolescent wives are susceptible to violence, abuse and exploitation. Young brides are often forced to drop out of school, have few work opportunities and little chance to influence their own lives.
"If young girls are not in school, they are more vulnerable," South African Health Minister Barbara Hogan said at the launch. "It's not just a health issue; it is about the status of young women and girls."
According to the report in 2007, the latest year for which statistics are available, 9.2 million children died before reaching the age of 5, down from 9.7 million the year before.
Half of these deaths occurred in Africa, which remains the most difficult place in the world for a child to survive.
Africa is also the continent with the highest rate of maternal deaths, with women having a one in 26 lifetime chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth. This is four times higher than in Asia and more than 300 times higher than in industrialized countries.
Veneman said 80 percent of maternal deaths are preventable if women have access to basic maternity and health care services.
In developing countries a woman has a 1-in-76 chance of dying due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth compared to 1-in-8,000 for women in industrialized countries.
"Progress has been made in reducing child mortality but much more must be done especially in addressing maternal and newborn health," Veneman said. "The world must approach this task with a shared sense of urgency and a collaborative response."
The reports says while the world is far behind on improving maternal health, there have been some advances, particularly in reducing the number of children who die in their first month of life.
In addition, much progress has been made in combatting HIV and AIDS among women and children.
According to the report, 2007 statistics show that 33 percent of the 1.5 million HIV positive pregnant women received treatment to prevent the virus being passed on to their child, compared to 10 percent in 2005.
The number of children receiving anti-retroviral treatment has almost tripled from 75,000 in 2005 to 200,000 in 2007.
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