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Last Updated: Tuesday, 6 July, 2004, 16:13 GMT 17:13 UK
Child deaths rise in Indian state
By Zubair Ahmed
BBC correspondent in Bombay

Indian children, BBC
Experts say malnutrition affects huge numbers of people in India
Nearly 9,000 children under the age of six have died directly or indirectly of malnutrition in tribal areas of India's Maharashtra state in the last year.

On average more than 500 children are dying every month.

The government in the western state says the deaths cannot be attributed solely to malnutrition as many children are dying of disease.

According to the figures, in April and May alone more than 1,000 children died in the 15 tribal districts.

High unemployment

All of them were aged under six years old and lived in Maharashtra.

The figures released by the state health department show that over the previous 12 months, 8,500 children died.

The state's tribal areas are some of the most underdeveloped parts of India, where there is a high rate of unemployment and malnutrition is common.

The deaths become even more alarming considering the tribal population of children under six is just over 800,000.

The director general of the state government's health services, Dr Subhash Salunkhe, said malnutrition was one factor in these deaths, but he added that it was not the only cause.

He says there are a variety of other reasons, such as communicable diseases, low birth weight and premature delivery.

Mobile clinics

But health activists believe malnutrition, both directly and indirectly, is the main cause.

Children with malnutrition cannot fight diseases which are a direct result of their lack of proper food, they say.

Dr Amar Jessani, a health activist, said the state government's reluctance to accept malnutrition as the main reason for these deaths is understandable.

"It will become a huge political issue if the government accepts malnutrition is the reason," he said.

The health department has established 130 mobile clinics and sent 20 ambulances in the tribal areas in an effort to control the deaths.

Dr Subhash Salunkhe says the infant mortality rate in these areas is 44%, down 11% from the 1990s.

Dr Salunkhe said that it will take another five years to bring it down to 25%.

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