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Infant mortality found to drop 18 percent in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Infant mortality has dropped by 18 percent in Afghanistan, in one of the first real signs of recovery for the country five years after the fall of the Taliban regime, health officials said yesterday.

"Despite many challenges, there are clear signs of health-sector recovery and progress throughout the country," Dr. Muhammad Amin Fatimi, the health minister, told journalists here.

The number of children who die before their first birthday has dropped to 135 per 1,000 in 2006 from 165 per 1,000 live births in 2001, according to a countrywide survey by Johns Hopkins University, Fatimi said.

That represents a drop of 18 percent and means that 40,000 to 50,000 fewer infants are dying now than in the Taliban era, he said. "Thanks be to God they are celebrating, laughing and smiling," he said. "These infants are the future builders of our country."

Research was conducted by visiting 8,000 households around the country -- with four of 34 provinces excepted because of poor security -- from September to November 2006, said Benjamin Loevinsohn, a health specialist from the World Bank.

The findings are probably conservative, he said, since mothers were interviewed about the children they had given birth to over the past five years, and health services only began to improve countrywide in 2004.

Afghanistan still fares worse than Chad and Somalia in infant mortality, Fatimi said. And the number of women dying in childbirth in Afghanistan remains the second highest in the world, after Sierra Leone, he added.

Loevinsohn attributed the lower infant mortality mainly to the expansion of health clinics to rural areas and to the better coverage of the population with basic vaccination against measles, polio, and tetanus.

Immunization coverage in 2003 was 19.5 percent of the child population; in 2006 it rose to 35 percent. The target was 80 percent.

Improvements in natal care also helped, he said, with an increase in trained health workers, midwives, and birth attendants and an increase in the use of contraceptives.

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