India's Prime Minister has expressed his concern at the country's infant mortality rate.

Story highlights

India still accounts for the highest number of newborn and child deaths in the world

Reasons include neonatal health conditions, widespread illiteracy, poverty and poor sanitation

New Delhi CNN  — 

More than 50 children, most of them newborn babies, have died in less than two weeks at a state-run pediatric hospital in one of India’s most impoverished regions, authorities say.

The first two cases were reported on August 21 at the Sishu Bhawan hospital in Odisha state on India’s east coast. Since then, 52 children have died, hospital superintendent Niranjan Mohanty told CNN.

Sishu Bhawan is one of the few referral pediatric hospitals in south-eastern India that specializes in complicated newborn health issues, he said.  

But he admitted the hospital is overwhelmed. On average, the 416-bed facility receives at least 450 children daily from across Odisha and neighboring states – at least 50 requiring intensive care.

Most of the children who died in the past days suffered from birth asphyxia – when a baby doesn’t receive enough oxygen at birth. Other cases involved neonatal sepsis, a blood infection that occurs in infants younger than 90 days.

Read more: India’s babies get ‘bullet-proof’ incubators

National infant mortality concern

While a team of health officials from the central government has now arrived in Odisha to investigate, the spike in child deaths has once again put the spotlight on infant mortality and malnourishment rates in India generally.

Around 50,000 mothers and 1.3 million newborns die every year in the country during or immediately after delivery, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in his latest radio address on Sunday. He said India has achieved a substantial decline in maternal and child deaths, but said the figure still remained too high. “This is worrisome and scary,” he said.

According to the national health ministry, India’s current newborn mortality rate stands at 29 per 1,000 live births. The South Asian nation aims to bring it down to the single-digits in the next 15 years, the ministry said. 

Of the 2.8 million newborns dying at birth worldwide, India accounts for 700,000 such deaths, authorities said. The country’s under-5 mortality rate is even more serious – 49 per 1,000 live births, UNICEF India’s health specialist Gagan Gupta told CNN.

Besides neonatal health conditions, widespread illiteracy, poverty, poor sanitation and nutrition have also been identified as contributors to high rates of child mortality in the world’s second most populous nation.

Despite a sharp fall in its under-5 mortality between 1990 and 2013, India still accounts for the highest number of newborn and child deaths in the world, followed by Nigeria, Pakistan, China and Congo, Gupta said.