* Pluralistic approach drives new ways of improving health
* Particular progress in infant, child, maternal mortality
* But major challenges of poverty and malnutrition remain
By Kate Kelland, Health and Science Correspondent
LONDON, Nov 21 (Reuters)- Bangladesh has had 40 years of
exceptional progress in health, with infant mortality down, life
expectancy up and good disease control, all despite being one of
the world's poorest countries, researchers said on Thursday.
Most often in the news for its poverty or natural or manmade
disasters, such as a factory fire that killed 1,129 people in
April, Bangladesh was described in studies published on Thursday
as a "remarkable success story" and one of the "great mysteries
of global health".
"Over the past 40 years, Bangladesh has outperformed its
Asian neighbours, convincingly defying the expert view that
reducing poverty and increasing health resources are the key
drivers of better population health," said Professor Mushtaque
Chowdhury from Dhaka's BRAC University, who co-led a series of
studies published in The Lancet medical journal.
The rate of women dying in childbirth has dropped by 75
percent since 1980 in Bangladesh, while infant mortality has
more than halved since 1990. Life expectancy has increased to
68.3 years - surpassing neighbouring India, at around 67 years,
and Pakistan at around 66 years.
Chowdhury's team said that although Bangladesh has low
health spending, its health system allows private and public
sectors and non-governmental organisations to work together.
This has led to rapid improvements in access to essential
services such as diarrhoea treatment, family planning, vitamin A
supplementation and vaccination coverage, they said.
An example of health success is in tackling tuberculosis
(TB) - an infectious and difficult-to-treat disease with which
India has been fighting a largely unsuccessful battle for many
The researchers found that through mass deployment of
community health workers, TB cure rates rose from less than 50
percent to above 90 percent - among the highest in the world.
To boost contraceptive use, Bangladesh recruited female
health workers to deliver door-to-door family planning services
and achieved high (62 percent) contraceptive prevalence and a
rapid fall in fertility from 6.3 births per woman in 1971 to 2.3
in 2010 - rates unparalleled in similar nearby countries, the
Pakistan's contraceptive use, for example, is around 35
percent and its fertility rate is 3.8 births per woman.
"Promoting an open culture of research-based innovation has
made Bangladesh a pioneer in scaling up community-based
approaches," said Abbas Bhuiya, a professor at Dhaka's
International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, co-leader
of the study series.
But the researchers said poverty and newer problems that
come with rapid urbanisation, such as an upsurge in chronic and
non-communicable diseases and increasing vulnerability to
climate change, cast a shadow over the successes.
"The stark reality is that prevalence of malnutrition in
Bangladesh is among the highest in the world. Nearly half of
children have chronic malnutrition. Moreover, over a third the
population (more than 47 million) live below the poverty line,
and income inequality is widening," said Bhuiya.
More also needs to be done to address a poorly-equipped
public health sector which, although free to the poor, faces an
estimated shortage of 800,000 doctors and nurses, the
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)