An estimated 585,000 women die every year from reproduction complications and a further 70,000 die from unsafe abortions, said the United Nations' State of the World Population Report 1999. Ninety-nine percent of those women live in developing countries with limited access to health care or contraception.
"Reproduction is the single greatest threat to their health," said Dr. Nafis Sadik, executive director of the United Nations Population Fund, in presenting the U.N. report in London on Wednesday. "Women are urged by society that that is their role, but then they're not really supported."
The U.N. report cited one study which found risk could be reduced by up to 80 percent if health care was available during pregnancy or emergency obstetric care during childbirth.
But of the world's 6 billion people, the United Nations said 4.8 billion live in developing countries where one-fifth do not have access to modern health services, and 350 million women do not have access to family planning methods.
Adolescent women, who are at particular risk of reproductive illness, account for more than 14 million births each year, and an estimated 4.4 million of the abortions.
"What we found in our studies is that we were producing all sorts of wonderful sex education materials but the teachers wouldn't teach them. They were too embarrassed," said Sadik.
The lack of education has also had serious repercussions in terms of disease. U.N. figures show 33.4 million people were HIV positive as of December, 1998 -- with one-half of the new HIV infections in people between 15 and 24. Ninety-five percent of those infected live in developing countries.
The U.N. report also looked at population trends, including growth in developing countries which are expected to account for 95 percent of the world's population growth in the future.
Africa's population is the world's fastest-growing -- tripling to 767 million since 1960 -- although AIDS has cut life expectancy dramatically and access to basic services is limited. Asia's population has doubled to 3.6 billion in the same time.
North American and European growth has slowed or stopped since 1960 as more couples decide to have less than the two children needed to "replace" themselves, the report noted. The United States is the only industrial country where increases are still projected, largely as a result of immigration.
The United Nations also reviewed a 20-year action plan, drawn up by 179 countries in Cairo in 1994, and found that while some progress had been made in gender equality and health care, the action plan was largely underfunded.
By 2050, the world population is expected to reach 8.9 billion, markedly lower than the 9.4 billion predicted by the United Nations two years ago, the U.N. study found.
It sai the lower figure takes into account the ravages of the HIV/AIDS virus and increased mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa and parts of the Indian subcontinent.
On the positive side, the United Nations noted that global mortality rates are dramatically falling, including infant mortality, which has dropped by two-thirds. Average life expectancy rose from 46 to 66 years.
Written By Caroline Byrne