Nearly one in 10 Cambodian babies will not live to see his or her first birthday.
Their mothers are not in much better shape—58 percent of them have anemia.
These are just two figures presented recently at a seminar during which the Ministry of Planning released its demographic and health survey.
Those numbers are of prime importance, not only to give people the sometimes bleak picture of Cambodia’s health, but also so the government can prepare its socio-economic development plan for the next five years, Prime Minister Hun Sen said, acknowledging how much work Cambodia has to do.
“According to the survey, maternal and infant mortality rates are still high in Cambodia, and the situation of child malnutrition has not been improved to the extent we want to see,” he said.
But the survey itself marked a small turning point in Cambodia’s development. A total of 12,810 families and 15,557 individual women were interviewed, making it the largest survey of its kind ever completed by the government, officials said.
Using the survey, Ministry of Planning officials say they can analyze information on family living conditions, family planning, family violence, maternal and infant mortality, child nutrition, health information, and overall public knowledge about HIV and AIDS.
The picture the survey paints is not all that good.
“The figures shown are still high. This is why we are here,” said Dr Bill Piggot of the World Health Organization.
The survey reveals that many Cambodian woman do not have access to or knowledge of birth control. Sixty percent of women in urban areas and 56 percent of women in rural areas do not practice birth spacing, and 32 percent of births surveyed were unplanned, the report states.
Even more alarming was how little access pregnant women have to health care. Fifty-five percent of pregnant women surveyed had not received a health checkup in the last five years, the report stated. Only 11 percent of women surveyed said they had delivered children in health care centers.
That must change, Hun Sen said. “Mothers and children should be provided with health services before, during and after birth,” he said.
Access to health care can make all the difference, health officials say. “One of our reforms is to get nearer to the people,” said Sok Touch, director of the Department of Communicable Disease Control for the Ministry of Health.
He said all Cambodians should be within a two-hour walk of a health center.
The government is about 70 percent of the way toward reaching that goal, Sok Touch said.
But even if there is access to care, Cambodians still must know about their health care options.
“Our people are still unknowledgeable. Some think that giving birth is simple because they see some rural people give birth to 10 children,” said Prum Huoch, senior midwife at Sihanouk Hospital.
“A woman died in our hospital two years ago, after she tried to give birth at home. Then, it was too late to survive,” she said.
She said the hospital has not had another birth-related fatality since.
Getting the message out may require new thinking, Hun Sen said, suggesting that the government make use of the Internet to educate Cambodians about health care.
Underlining all the figures is the need for more money. The government has increased the health budget in the past three years by almost 100 billion riel (approximately $25 million), which deserves accolades, Piggot said. “It is quite a respectable increase,” he said.
For now, however, health officials will have to wait and see how well—and how quickly—the investment will affect some of the problems pointed out in the survey, Piggot said.
“It does take some time to get the figures changed,” he said.
Even so, the survey is an important first step, Hun Sen said.
“This information will allow the public health policy makers to take effective measures to address the pressing issues highlighted in the survey, and improve health services,” he said.