The Italian government ruled out Monday that medical error was responsible for the widely reported deaths of four pregnant women in four different hospitals between Christmas and New Year's Eve.
Over the weekend, Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin had ordered inspections at the northern Italian hospitals of Turin, Bassano del Grappa, Verona and Brescia to check for any "eventual errors" committed by medical staff.
"We have the first results coming from the case in Turin, where no direct blame for the hospital has been found," Lorenzin told the SkyTG24 news channel about the December 26 death of Angela Nesta and her baby girl.
Even though findings from other hospitals were yet to be handed to the ministry, Lorenzin said she was convinced that the string of fatalities were due to "a tragic coincidence, to which we nevertheless have to give an answer."
She said risky cases of pregnancy - such as those concerning obese women or with serious diseases - had to be better monitored, and promised the issuance of new medical care guidelines from her ministry.
According to World Bank data, Italy has one of the world's lowest maternal mortality ratios, at 4 per 100,000 live births. Lorenzin said the figure was higher in the biggest Italian regions, standing at 10 per 100,000 live births.
In a separate interview with La Repubblica newspaper, she described childbirth as "a natural, but exceptional" event that cannot be considered "risk-free," and said authorities can aim for "zero deaths, apart from those which are impossible to prevent and avoid."
The 44-year-old minister, who gave birth to twins in June, said it was also important to raise Italy's birthrate, as the latest available data show that only 502,600 babies were born in 2014, the lowest figure since the country was unified in 1861.
"This is the country's real emergency," Lorenzin told La Repubblica, warning of devastating societal and economic consequences, and saying that women cannot be "forced to choose between having a job and getting pregnant."