UN says 35,000 pregnant women need care in Burma

Jun 13, 2008 (AP)‚ Up to 35,000 pregnant cyclone survivors are in urgent need of proper care in Burma, a UN expert said Wednesday, as relief agencies again raised concerns about the junta’s willingness to accept foreign aid.

Pregnancy and childbirth were already relatively risky before Cyclone Nargis struck Burma, one of Asia’s poorest countries, said William A. Ryan, a spokesman for the UN Population Fund.

More than 100 women give birth every day in the area affected by the cyclone, he told reporters in Bangkok, Thailand.

"The destruction of health centers and loss of midwives have greatly increased the risks," he said. "It is clear that many pregnant women do not have anywhere to go to deliver with skilled assistance."

Ryan said that wrecked health facilities should be rebuilt and there is also a need for trained midwives.

The maternal mortality rate in Burma before the 2-3 May storm was 380 per 100,000 births ‚ almost four times the rate in Thailand and 60 times the rate in Japan, Ryan said.

He said the UN Population Fund has provided supplies to Burma’s Health Ministry for distribution to health clinics in 10 affected townships, including hospital equipment and rubber gloves.

Meanwhile, international aid agencies said the government’s new guidelines for delivering relief to cyclone survivors could slow their response.

The rules, distributed Tuesday by the government at a meeting with UN agencies and private humanitarian organizations, would require a large amount of paperwork and repeated contacts with government agencies.

"Additional steps for seeking approval may unnecessarily delay the relief response," the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said in a report.

UN agencies were assessing the new guidelines, said Amanda Pitt of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The guidelines require most activities by the foreign agencies to be cleared by a government ministry and local authorities. It also requires approval from the so-called Tripartite Core Group, comprising representatives of the government, UN agencies and the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which Burma is a member.

The UN estimates that Nargis affected 2.4 million people and that more than 1 million of them, mostly in the Irrawaddy delta, still need help. The cyclone killed at least 78,000 people, according to the government.

Foreign aid organizations have faced a series of hurdles in trying to provide help for victims of the storm, starting with the government’s reluctance to grant anything but a handful of visas to foreigners.

Although helicopters have been allowed ‚ with some delay ‚ to fly supplies to the delta, aid agencies say the government has continued to stall visa applications and delayed allowing foreigners access to the most devastated areas.

Also Wednesday, a state-controlled newspaper, the New Light of Myanmar, said the military rulers were breaking no laws by holding democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest for a sixth straight year.

The junta’s recent decision to extend her detention by one year sparked international outrage, with the Nobel Peace laureate’s party and foreign defense lawyers arguing she could legally be held for only five years.

A commentary in the newspaper said detentions are permissible for as long as six years under a 1975 law.

Aung San Suu Kyi has been detained for more than 12 of the last 18 years at her home in Burma.

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