UN Report Shows Dramatic Drop in Maternal Mortality, But Is It Enough?

It's a great start, but how can we do more to prevent maternal deaths?

Bringing a new life into the world is a tough process, made even tougher when there aren't sufficient resources. (Photo: iandeth/flickr)

Written by Suzi Parrasch

The number of women dying from pregnancy and childbirth-related complications has dropped dramatically over the past two decades according to a new United Nations report.

Trends in Maternal Mortality 1990-2010, released today by the World Health OrganizationUNICEF, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank, estimates there were 287,000 maternal deaths in 2010, a 47% drop from the 543,000 estimated deaths in 1990.

Good news, yes, but not good enough. A woman dies in pregnancy or or childbirth every two minutes somewhere in the world. That's nearly 1,000 women every day. The four most common causes of death: severe bleeding after childbirth, infections, eclampsia, obstructed labor, and unsafe abortions. Ninety nine percent of these deaths occur in the developing world -- and most are preventable with proven interventions.

“We know exactly what to do to prevent maternal deaths: improve access to voluntary family planning, invest in health workers with midwifery skills, and ensure access to emergency obstetric care when complications arise. These interventions have proven to save lives and accelerate progress towards meeting the Millennium Development Goal 5," said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, in a statement.

Substantial progress has been made in most regions of the world due to better contraception, increased use of anti-retroviral drugs for mothers with AIDS, and more births attended by nurses, doctors, and trained midwives, according to the report.

The sad truth however, is that despite this progress, Millennium Development Goal 5, which targets reducing maternal death by 75% from 1990 to 2015, will likely not be met by many countries. The vast majority of countries with the highest maternal mortality rates -- a whoppping 36 out of 40-- are in sub-Saharan Africa. One  third of all maternal deaths in 2010 occurred in just two countries: India, which accounted for almost 20%, and Nigeria, which accounted for 14%.

The United States doesn't even rank in the top tier of countries in terms of maternal health, according to the report. The U.S. fell behind Western Europe, Canada and Australia, and ranked on a par with Russia, Central and South America and parts of north Africa.

East Asia, which has made the greatest progress in preventing maternal mortality has a contraceptive prevalence rate of 84% as opposed to only 22% in sub-Saharan Africa. Most of that is attributable to China, which has a one-child policy and a very high rate of contraceptive use.

"Over a quarter of a million women still die in pregnancy and childbirth each year, and more than 215 million women lack access to modern contraceptives. Meeting the need for voluntary family planning for these women would not only fulfill a human right, it would also reduce the number of maternal deaths by a third. This is a highly cost-effective public health strategy,” said Dr. Osotimehin.

This is in no way meant to diminish the remarkable work that's been done. Nearly halving the maternal death rate over the course of 20 years is nothing to sneeze at. And as the report notes "when governments take a strategic approach to the safe motherhood challenge -- by deploying trained midwives, ensuring adequate essential supplies, making family planning accessible and providing timely obstetric care to women with complications, we are getting results. Still, there is more work to be done in delivering a world where every pregnancy is wanted and every childbirth is safe."

But this newest report, which comes on the heels of Save the Children's annual State of the World's Mothers last week, points to major development gaps, and the need for wealthy countries to step up to the plate. The G8 countries meeting this week at Camp David have ample opportunity to commit to preventing maternal deaths. The question is, will they?

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