INFANT mortality in Afghanistan has fallen dramatically since the demise of the Taleban, according to a new study, with 40,000 fewer babies dying every year.
Improvements in women's access to medical care since the Taleban were ousted from power five years ago was cited as the main reason for the death rate becoming significantly lower.
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Grim infant and maternal mortality rates have been regularly cited as evidence of Afghanistan's backwardness after decades of war.
They were also seen as a sign of the slow progress of the internationally funded reconstruction effort.
According to the preliminary results of a Johns Hopkins University study, the infant mortality rate has declined to about 135 per 1,000 live births in 2006, down from an estimated 165 per 1,000 in 2001.
The researchers "found improvements in virtually all aspects of care in almost every province," the public health ministry and World Bank said in a joint statement on the findings.
Mohammad Amin Fatimi, Afghanistan's public health minister, said the news was welcomed. "Despite many challenges, there are clear signs of health sector recovery and progress throughout the country," he said.
"But there is a long way to go to provide access to basic health services for Afghans in far remote, under-served and marginalised areas across the country. These infants are the future builders of our country."
Benjamin Loevinsohn, a World Bank health specialist, said the survey results probably underestimated the improvement in infant mortality.
"It's a conservative estimate. This is the situation two and a half to three years ago ... It should be better than that now," Mr Loevinsohn said.
He said children were benefiting from a push in 2004 to improve health care and access to vaccinations for diseases such as measles, polio and tetanus.
The researchers studied more than 600 health facilities annually since 2004.
Doctors and health professionals visited 8,278 households, using a standardised questionnaire to interview one mother per household about her birth history.
The study found the number of women receiving prenatal care increased to 30 per cent in 2006 from 5 per cent in 2003.
Nineteen per cent of pregnant women were attended by a skilled health worker last year, up from only 5 per cent in 2003.
The survey was conducted in 29 of the country's 34 provinces - excluding Helmand, Uruzgan, Kandahar, Zabul and Nuristan because of security concerns, Mr Loevinsohn said.
The ministry is working to set up small clinics, deploy mobile teams in remote rural areas, expand community midwifery training, and increase the number of female staff at health facilities.
However Afghanistan still has one of the world's highest maternal mortality rates.
One in 60 Afghan women dies of pregnancy-related causes, said UN Population Fund executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid.
"No woman should die giving life," she said during a visit to Afghanistan this week.
"No nation can be developed when its women are dying giving birth."
• TALEBAN militants have seized control of a district in south-east Afghanistan after a clash that killed five people, including the local mayor and his police chief, it was reported yesterday.
The Taleban launched the attack on Thursday evening on the Giro district of Ghazni province, setting fire to several buildings and cutting communication lines, according to the provincial deputy governor, Kazim Allayer.
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