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India activists protest to reduce maternal deaths

Protesters near the Taj Mahal demand action from authorities to reduce the number of maternal deaths in India  

AGRA, India (CNN) -- Indian ruler Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal for the love of his life, Mumtaz, who died while giving birth.

Nearly 400 years later, such deaths remain a serious health issue in India, where a mother dies every five minutes on average of complications related either to pregnancy or childbirth.

To draw attention to the problem, activists held a rally recently at the renowned monument, where they demanded action from authorities to reduce the number of maternal deaths, which they say reach up to 100,000 a year in India.

Others suggest the numbers may be higher. A 1999 United Nations Population Fund report says an estimated 514,000 women die worldwide of pregnancy-related causes, with India accounting for 25 percent of the total.

"The amount of women that we are losing in one week in India due to pregnancy-related issues are more than the amount of women we lose per year in all of Europe," said actress and activist Shabana Azmi, "which means really like 300 airplane crashes a year, and nobody is noticing."

Malnutrition, low awareness cited

hospital patient
This mother is battling an infection caused by failure of the village midwife to remove all of the placenta  

Women in India face a one-in-37 lifetime risk of maternal death, compared to one in 9,200 in Spain, one in 3,500 in the United States, and one in seven in Somalia and Afghanistan, according to statistics from the World Health Organization and World Bank.

The main problems in India include few prenatal clinics, malnutrition and a high illiteracy rate leading to a general lack of awareness.

In a hospital near the Taj Mahal, a woman is fighting for her life, her husband praying to get back his wife and mother of their four children. Her problem is a typical one. She suffered an infection when the village midwife -- someone of dubious expertise -- failed to remove all of the placenta.

"These patients aren't aware of what they should eat, when they should report. They think pregnancy is a normal physiological phenomenon. Most of them deliver normally at home, but when complications arise, then it's very difficult," said Dr. Kalyami Misra.

Campaign urged to tackle problem

More than 70 percent of pregnant women in India are believed to have iron-deficiency anemia, which can increase the risk of premature births, low birth-weight babies and death of the mother, according to the American Public Health Association.

Back at the jamboree, a village magician is enlisted to help the problem disappear by explaining just how villagers can help themselves. But experts say the trick here is massive coordinated campaign to tackle the problem on all fronts.

CNN Correspondent Kasra Naji contributed to this report

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World Health Organization
UNPF - United Nations Population Fund
UNPF - Maternal Mortality Update
American Public Health Association
Taj Mahal, Mausoleum of Mumtaz Mahal

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4:30pm ET, 4/16

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