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International Relations

Japan the safest place to give birth: UNICEF

New report calls for universal health coverage to lower infant mortality

Japan's newborns had the lowest mortality among the 184 countries ranked by UNICEF.

UNITED NATIONS -- Japan shines as the world's safest country for having a baby in a new UNICEF report that cites universal access to quality health care as a contributing factor to low newborn mortality rates.

The equivalent of 1 in 1,111 newborns in Japan died during their first 28 days in 2016, estimates the report covering 184 countries. In Pakistan, the least safe place to give birth, 46 out of 1,000 babies did not make it past the first month -- the equivalent of 1 in 22.

"So often, children die because mothers and their babies lack access to quality, affordable care, provided by skilled health workers in clean, well-resourced facilities," UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore said Tuesday at a launch event for the report and the Every Child Alive campaign.

"The good news is that so many countries are showing us that increased access to affordable health care, while improving the quality of that care, is less a matter of national wealth than national commitment," she said.

High-income countries had significantly lower newborn mortality rates: an average of 3 deaths per 1,000 live births, against 27 per 1,000 in low-income countries. But income level "does not explain the whole story," the report notes. Despite its high income, the U.S. had a newborn mortality rate of 4 per 1,000 -- "only slightly better than the rates in lower-middle-income countries" like Ukraine and Sri Lanka.

Results in Asia were mixed. Japan, Singapore and South Korea were in the 10 best places for giving birth, ranked by mortality rate. But India, Pakistan, China, Indonesia and Bangladesh were among the 10 countries with the greatest numbers of newborn deaths. India alone lost 640,000, for a rate of 25 per 1,000 live births. Despite Bangladesh's poor ranking, the low-income South Asian nation made significant progress, reducing newborn deaths from 241,000 in 1990 to 62,000 in 2016.

For Japan and other countries with very low infant mortality, the report cites strong health systems with ample numbers of highly skilled workers, well-developed infrastructure, sanitation, public health education, and guaranteed universal access to quality care at all ages.

Japanese deputy U.N. ambassador Yasuhisa Kawamura expressed support for the Every Child Alive campaign and spoke of plans to host the Nutrition for Growth Summit in 2020. "Children hold our future in their hands, and we hold their future in our hands," Kawamura said. Their survival and well-being are fundamental for all of society, he said.

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