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Maternal health in India worse than sub-Saharan Africa

IANS  |  Washington 

Despite its economic successes, the state of maternal health in India is worse than sub-Saharan Africa, a region known for extremely poor health and high birth rates, a study says.

While, more than 40 percent of Indian women are underweight when they begin pregnancy, only 16.5 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa are underweight before pregnancy, the findings showed.

Babies born to undernourished mothers are more likely to be underweight, a characteristic influencing height, cognition and productivity across a lifetime.

"These findings should be a wake-up call about maternal nutrition in India," said lead author Diane Coffey, a Ph.D. student at Princeton University in the US.

"The health of children is one of the most important measures of the wellbeing of a society, and that starts during pregnancy. India must invest more in its most important resource: human capital formed at the very beginning of life," said Coffey.

The findings also pint out that maternal health in India is much worse than previously thought. Coffey found that unlike the United States, where the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention monitors health in pregnancy, there is no national health monitoring system in India.

As a result, prior studies of maternal health in India have severely missed the mark when calculating pre-pregnancy body weight. The most recent maternal health data was collected in 2005 by the Demographic and Health Survey, which showed that 35.5 percent of women aged 15 to 49 are underweight.

While this figure is commonly cited, it is actually inaccurate, Coffey reported, as women who become pregnant are different from those who do not with regards to body mass.

Using a variety of econometric strategies, Coffey estimated the pre-pregnancy body mass and weight gain during pregnancy in India and sub-Saharan Africa.

Coffey's analysis found that only 16.5 percent of women there are underweight before pregnancy, and the average pre-pregnancy BMI (body mass index) is two points higher than women in India, at 21.5.

The findings appeared in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

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First Published: Tue, March 03 2015. 13:30 IST