Nearly all maternal deaths occur in developing countries, UNICEF report finds

19 September 2008

Over 500,000 women die unnecessarily every year due to complications from pregnancy and childbirth, with 99 per cent of those deaths occurring in developing countries, according to a new report released today by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

“Progress for Children: a report card on maternal mortality” shows that the worst regions in which to give birth are sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, which together account for 84 per cent of maternal deaths.

In the developing world, the risk of death from complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth over the course of a woman’s lifetime is one in 76, compared with one in 8,000 in the industrialized world. The riskiest place to give birth is Niger, where that risk is estimated to be one in seven.

“The tragic fact is that every year more than half a million women lose their lives as a result of complications due to pregnancy or childbirth,” said Peter Salama, UNICEF’s Chief of Health. “The causes of maternal mortality are clear – as are the means to combat them. Yet women continue to die unnecessarily.”

According to the report, haemorrhage is the most common cause of death, particularly in Africa and Asia. A woman’s overall health – including her nutritional level and HIV status – also influences the chances of a positive outcome to her pregnancy and childbirth.

Poverty, inequity and general attitudes towards women and their health also play a part in maternal mortality rates, as did cultural or traditional practices that often prevent women from seeking delivery or post-partum care, the report stated.

UNICEF emphasized that most maternal deaths are avoidable, especially with better health care during the critical pregnancy, delivery and post-partum periods. It noted there have been improvements in maternal health interventions in recent years. Coverage of antenatal care in the developing world has risen by 15 percentage points in the past decade, with 75 per cent of expectant mothers now receiving some antenatal care.

Many countries have also boosted coverage of skilled delivery attendance, such as in Asia, where the proportion of women who have a skilled attendant present during delivery jumped from 31 to 40 per cent between 1995 and 2005. Increases have also been seen in many African countries.

“Ensuring that skilled personnel are present at all deliveries and that these personnel have access to emergency care where necessary is the most effective means of saving the lives of mothers,” stressed UNICEF.

At the same time, the agency calls for speeding up progress in the developing world to attain the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on maternal health, which calls for a 75 per cent reduction in maternal mortality by 2015.

“Saving mothers’ lives is not only a moral imperative, but a sound investment that benefits their children, their families, their communities and their countries,” said Tessa Wardlaw, UNICEF’s Chief of Statistics and Monitoring.

“Indeed, there is a clear connection between maternal health and other Millennium Development Goals, such as eradicating extreme poverty, reducing child mortality, and combating HIV and AIDS and other diseases,” she added.


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