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Flu Pandemic Deaths Linked to Poor Public Health

The swine flu pandemic will demonstrate "in extremely tragic ways" the consequences of the failure to promote public health and ensure basic care during pregnancy and childbirth in developing countries, the head of the World Health Organization warned.

Dr. Margaret Chan told a U.N. Forum on Advancing Global Health in the Face of Crises on Monday that developing countries are most vulnerable to the global H1N1 flu epidemic, the financial crisis, food shortages and climate change — and much more must be done to urgently strengthen their health care systems.

"Because of the economic downturn, people in affluent societies are losing their jobs, their homes, and their savings, and this is tragic," she said. "In developing countries, they will lose their lives."

Chan said present evidence indicates that "the main risk factors for severe or fatal H1N1 infection are two-fold: pregnancy, and underlying medical conditions, like asthma, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and obesity."

The WHO director-general said 99 percent of maternal deaths and 85 percent of the burden of chronic diseases are concentrated in low- and middle-income countries.

"I firmly believe that this pandemic will reveal, in a highly visible, measurable and tragic way, exactly what it means, in life-and-death terms, when health needs and health systems have been neglected, for decades, in large parts of the world," Chan told ministers and health officials at the day-long forum.

"We will see, in extremely tragic ways, the consequences of our longstanding failure to ensure basic care during pregnancy and childbirth," she said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who organized the forum, said he is "most troubled by the costs of failed maternal and child health."

"The global impact of maternal and newborn deaths has been estimated at US$15 billion a year in lost productivity," he said.

A woman dies every minute in childbirth, Ban said, which adds up to over half a million deaths a year, "nearly all of them preventable."

According to the U.N. children's agency, UNICEF, 3.7 million babies under one month old die every year.

"Experts warn that an additional 200,000 to 400,000 more babies could die annually if the (economic) crisis continues," Ban said.

The secretary-general said the problems of poor maternal health, weak health care systems, and the flu pandemic demand stepped up global action to give priority to health issues "that remain relatively orphaned."

"One billion people continue to suffer on a daily basis — and often die — of easy-to-control diseases that we continue to call `neglected tropical diseases.' These are in fact diseases of the world's poor," he said.

As a result of the economic crisis, Ban said, "an additional 50 to 90 million people in developing countries will be plunged into absolute poverty this year ... (and) inequities between rich and poor countries in access to health care are likely to increase."

A report by the Global Campaign for the Health Millennium Development Goals said recent actions from governments, international agencies and civil society have given hope for accelerating progress toward the goals of reducing child mortality by two-thirds and maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015. But it said progress is now threatened by the economic crisis and new and innovative financing is needed.