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Universal access drives China's reproductive health improvements

By Tian Ying, Mou Xu, Li Jingya

BEIJING, July 1 (Xinhua) -- While the growing number of rich urban couples increasingly opt to give birth in private clinics in China, the vast majority of rural women rely on public reproductive health services.

Fortunately, every woman in such grassroots communities has access to a reproductive health station. "China's maternal and child health network has universal coverage," or so says Wang Qiaomei, a maternal and child health chief for the National Health and Family Planning Commission.

Wang made the claim while sharing China's best practice at the concluding Partner's Forum in Johannesburg, South Africa, where a report was released praising China's development in reducing maternal and child deaths.

Compiled jointly by the World Bank, the World Health Organization and a number of other international groups, "Success Factors for Women's and Children's Health," acknowledges the role of a "comprehensive three-tier medical and health service network that extends from province to township and village level" in China.

According to China's official statistics, in 2013, the maternal mortality rate nationwide dropped to 23.2/100,000, a decrease of 56.2 percent compared to the year 2000. The rate of deaths among infants and children under four fell by 70.5 and 69.8 percent respectively in the 13 years.

Indeed, for a vast country with a vast rural population, much of it in poverty-stricken or remote areas, an effective public health system that reaches out to grassroots women and children is essential to the overall health of the groups.

Xiong Yanli, a 32-year-old woman in Lianghekou Township under Chishui City of southwest China's Guizhou Province, benefited from assess to maternal health services on her ragged journey to becoming a mother.

After giving birth to a healthy baby girl in February, she felt keenly the role of the local reproductive health station, particularly as she had her first baby voluntarily aborted after it was found to have congenital defects.

In 2011, Xiong got pregnant for the first time while working as a migrant worker with her husband in the city of Chongqing. Though the reproductive health station of her hometown in Lianghekou phoned her several times and advised her to register for regular maternal check-ups, she ignored them, reckoning "there is no big deal."

That proved to Xiong's cost when her fetus was found to have a cleft lip seven months into pregnancy. For a family struggling to sustain themselves, corrective surgery for the baby was not an option. They chose an abortion.

After Xiong got pregnant again, she and her husband returned home and she registered for monthly check-ups. To her delight, they are all free. She also received folic acid as advised.

The maternal services extended all the way to the post-natal period, the new mother found. The local reproductive health station took a blood sample from her baby girl's foot, mailing it to superior health centers for congenital disease screening, and vaccinated her girl against Hepatitis B.

Qian Xingqiong, a health worker at the Lianghekou reproductive health station, says the local birth defect screening process was expanded in 2012 from testing for five diseases to the current 30 diseases.

The health station also keeps track of the health of the township's 1,336 married women, 39 of which have gynecological diseases, and 307 children under four by door-to-door visits and telephone inquiries.

In China, there are more such maternal and child health services targeting the most under privileged. For instance, the country provides in-hospital delivery subsidies for rural women, a project that has made a significant contribution to reducing maternal deaths and neonatal tetanus. It also provides free-of-charge breast and cervical cancer check-ups for rural women.

Despite all the achievements, China also has to battle many maternal and child health challenges, those posed by a rising migrant population for one. As public health service delivery relies on a relatively strict civil household registration system, migrant women and children often fall off of the radar of health workers with the places they are registered, and expecting mothers have to return home to enjoy free or subsidized care.

However, in a world scrambling to eliminate the injustices affecting women and children, China's heavy investment in ensuring universal access is a take-home lesson.

(To stay up to date with the latest China news, follow XHNews on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/XHNews and Xinhua News Agency on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/XinhuaNewsAgency.)

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