Close to 70 percent of women who died in childbirth and infants who died one year or younger did so in remote and poor rural areas, Health Minister Chen Zhu said over the weekend.
The maternity and infant deaths, said to be highly avoidable with proper medical care, occurred despite great progress made to boost the national life expectancy of women from 35 to 74 years, Chen said at a meeting on women's health.
The widening rural-urban, rich-poor gap and healthcare services for women were pressing medical issues for the government to address, Chen said.
In 2006, maternity deaths in the countryside were nearly twice that in cities, with the disparity even bigger between the remote and eastern areas, health ministry statistics showed.
The rate of such deaths was an important indicator of a country's development in general and should not be "totally decided by varied economic status", the health minister said.
All women in China enjoy the same right to healthcare services, vice minister of health Liu Qian said.
"It's the government's responsibility to provide such services and ensure equitable access for all women in need," Liu said.
The ministry is now framing an action plan dedicated to enhancing Chinese women's health, amid a slew of health initiatives packaged as "Healthy China 2020", the vice minister said.
In two years, a system to deliver basic healthcare services to women in both urban and rural areas will be set up, he said.
And by 2015, healthcare services will be enhanced to have all women give birth in hospitals, with a continuous drop in maternity and infant deaths targeted.
"The health of women in China will take the lead among all developing countries," Liu said.
"China is now on the right track to achieve that," Dr Hans Troedsson, World Health Organization Representative in China, said.
The issue of women's health in the country goes far beyond childbearing these days, he said.
"Apart from the risks and dangers facing them during pregnancy and delivery, they are also at risk of a wide range of medical conditions, including reproductive tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and breast cancer," he said.
The medical problems plaguing the country's colossal female migrant worker population are even greater, Liu said, with many shunning timely treatment for fear of high medical fees in the cities where they work.
The health of women today is the health of the country tomorrow, Chen said, calling for more public awareness of the issue.
He added that the government is considering providing basic free healthcare services for women living in poverty and strengthening the medical assistance system.
(China Daily March 3, 2008)