Pakistan’s Maternal and Child Health Problems “Huge Stumbling Block” to Development, Long-Term Security

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By: Schuyler Null, Editor, New Security Beat

In the long term, improving maternal and child health is as critical to national security as any problem in Pakistan today, said a panel of experts including Minister of National Health Services Saira Afzal Tarar at the Wilson Center September 9, at the policy dialogue, A Prescription for a Secure Pakistan: Why Health is Vital for National Security and Economic Development.

Pakistan, already struggling to meet the needs of its people, has the fastest growing population in South Asia and has made little progress in many maternal and child health indicators over several decades. There are a million more babies born each year compared to 1990, said Zulfiqar Bhutta, Husein Laljee Dewraj professor at Aga Khan University, co-director of research at the SickKids Center for Global Child Health, and professor at the University of Toronto, while diarrhea and pneumonia remain the leading cause of death for children, killing at least 120,000 every year.

Bhutta’s presentation from Karachi gives a strong overview of data collected over 30 years through household demographic and health surveys. What they reveal is a Pakistan with great inequalities in access to and quality of health care and nutrition.

In parts of Balochistan, less than 10 percent of babies are delivered in a health facility, whereas in Punjab and Sindh, rates are above 40 percent. The same disparity exists in unmet need for family planning.

Many mothers and newborns do not get enough food. Rates of stunting and wasting for children have changed little over the last 60 years. This has had effects across generations, said Bhutta, where underdeveloped adolescent girls are giving birth to underdeveloped newborns.

These statistics describe a “vicious cycle” of high infant and child mortality, high fertility rates, and adolescent and girl child undernutrition, said Bhutta, which is a “huge stumbling block” to development.

For more from Bhutta and Minister Tarar’s full comments, watch the archived webcast on

This post has been slightly edited and originally appeared on the New Security Beat, the blog of the Environmental Change and Sustainability Program at the Wilson Center.