* India beset by high rates of child, maternal deaths
* Faces growing problem of chronic diseases
* Experts urge universal healthcare by 2020
By Tan Ee Lyn
HONG KONG, Jan 11 (Reuters) - Despite rapid economic growth, India's healthcare system remains blighted by high rates of infant mortality and deaths in childbirth, malaria, tuberculosis and a growing problem with chronic diseases, experts said.
In a series of seven papers published in The Lancet on Tuesday, they said India's healthcare system was unable to cater to the needs of its population and out-of-pocket health bills were pushing 39 million residents into poverty each year.
Among the proposals produced in the reports was a call for universal healthcare by 2020.
They warned that chronic diseases like heart and respiratory ailments, mental disorders, diabetes and cancer will account for nearly 75 percent of all deaths in India by 2030, and urged the government to produce a comprehensive plan to meet the healthcare needs of its 1.16 billion-strong population.
"The number of years of life lost because of coronary heart disease deaths before the age of 60 years will increase from 7.1 million in 2004 to 17.9 million in 2030," researchers led by Vikram Patel at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine wrote in their paper, the third in the series.
"(This) means that by 2030, more life years will be lost as a result of this disease in India than is projected for China, Russia and the United States combined."
One article, produced by a team led by Srinath Reddy at the Public Health Foundation of India, concluded that only the creation of a national health service could tackle the issue.
"We propose the following targets to be achieved by 2020 through the creation of the Integrated National Health System with three overarching goals: ensure the reach and quality of health services to all in India; reduce the financial burden of healthcare on individuals; and empower people to take care of their health and hold the healthcare system accountable," the team wrote in the seventh article in the series.
In comparison, China, also a fast-growing major economy, implemented healthcare reforms in 2003 and gave it an additional boost in 2009 by injecting $124 billion.
It said 92 percent of China's population was now covered by basic healthcare insurance (See FACTBOX on how India compares with other countries: TOE70A077).
Infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria account for 30 percent of India's disease burden, according to a team led by Jacob John, a retired professor at the Christian Medical College.
Their paper highlighted the gaps in health information as autopsies are rarely performed and scarce attention is paid to infectious diseases by the medical profession.
Even though India met the World Health Organisation's target of eliminating leprosy by 2005, new cases have been creeping up at a rate of 1.17 per 10,000 population a year and they warned that the disease may surge anew in the future.
India also carries the world's largest burden of maternal, newborn and child deaths, according to a paper authored by Vinod Kumar Paul at the All India Institute of Medical Sciences.
In 2008, 1.8 million children below age five, including one million neonates (four weeks old and under), and 68,000 mothers died. India also has the greatest number of undernourished children, and about 52 million of them are stunted.
Paul and colleagues also pointed out a tendency to neglect female babies in a country where boys are preferred.
"Financial incentives for care seeking need to be considered, particularly for female infants and children," they wrote.
To tackle the rise of chronic illnesses, the experts called for population-wide programmes to promote lifestyle changes, such as reducing salt intake and tobacco and alcohol consumption. Better management of diabetes, exercise and dietary changes should also be encouraged.
To strengthen the public health system, incentives can be used to encourage healthcare workers to work in poorly served rural and remote areas, they wrote.
Another paper, led by Y Balarajan at the Harvard School of Public Health, said more than three-quarters of health spending was paid privately and that such high out-of-pocket expenditures pushed 39 million Indians into poverty every year. (Editing by Ron Popeski) ((If you have a query or comment on this story, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org)