UN Agencies Decry Global Maternal Death Rates

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A midwife listening for the heartbeat of a pregnant woman’s baby.

United Nations (UN) agencies released a report today that revealed alarming setbacks for women’s health over recent years. The report, Trends in Maternal Mortality, stated that a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth every two minutes, with maternal deaths either increasing or stagnating in almost all regions of the world. The report noted that progress in reducing maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015 largely stalled or even reversed after this point.

“While pregnancy should be a time of immense hope and a positive experience for all women, it is tragically still a shockingly dangerous experience for millions around the world who lack access to high quality, respectful health care,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director-general of the World Health Organization (WHO). “These new statistics reveal the urgent need to ensure every woman and girl has access to critical health services before, during and after childbirth, and that they can fully exercise their reproductive rights.”

The report, which tracks maternal deaths nationally, regionally and globally from 2000 to 2020, shows there were an estimated 287 000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2020. This marks only a slight decrease from 309 000 in 2016 when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect. While the report presents some significant progress in reducing maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015, gains largely stalled, or in some cases even reversed, after this point.

In two of the eight UN regions – Europe and Northern America, and Latin America and the Caribbean – the maternal mortality rate increased from 2016 to 2020, by 17 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively. Elsewhere, the rate stagnated. The report notes, however, that progress is possible. For example, two regions – Australia and New Zealand, and Central and Southern Asia – experienced significant declines (by 35 per cent and 16 per cent respectively) in their maternal mortality rates during the same period, as did 31 countries across the world.

“For millions of families, the miracle of childbirth is marred by the tragedy of maternal deaths,” said UNICEF executive director Catherine Russell. “No mother should have to fear for her life while bringing a baby into the world, especially when the knowledge and tools to treat common complications exist. Equity in healthcare gives every mother, no matter who they are or where they are, a fair chance at a safe delivery and a healthy future with their family.”

In 2020, about 70 per cent of all maternal deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa. The poorest parts of the world and countries affected by the conflict continue to have the highest concentration of maternal deaths. In nine countries facing severe humanitarian crises, maternal mortality rates were more than double the world average.

“This report provides yet another stark reminder of the urgent need to double down on our commitment to women and adolescent health,” said Juan Pablo Uribe, global director for health, nutrition and population at the World Bank and director of the global financing facility. “With immediate action, more investments in primary health care and stronger, more resilient health systems, we can save lives, improve health and well-being, and advance the rights of and opportunities for women and adolescents.

Severe bleeding, high blood pressure, pregnancy-related infections, complications from unsafe abortion, and underlying conditions that can be aggravated by pregnancy, such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, are the leading causes of maternal deaths. These causes are preventable and treatable with access to high-quality and respectful healthcare.

The report called for ensuring that every woman and girl has access to critical health services before, during, and after childbirth and that they can fully exercise their reproductive rights. Community-centered primary health care can meet the needs of women, children and adolescents and enable equitable access to critical services such as assisted births and pre- and postnatal care, childhood vaccinations, nutrition, and family planning.

However, underfunding of primary health care systems, a lack of trained health care workers, and weak supply chains for medical products threaten progress. Roughly a third of women do not receive essential postnatal care, while some 270 million women lack access to modern family planning methods.

It is critical to exercise control over reproductive health, particularly decisions about if and when to have children, to ensure that women can plan and space childbearing and protect their health. Inequities related to income, education, race, or ethnicity further increase risks for marginalized pregnant women, who have the least access to essential maternity care but are most likely to experience underlying health problems in pregnancy.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have further held back progress on maternal health. Noting the current data series ends in 2020, more data will be needed to show the true impacts of the pandemic on maternal deaths. However, COVID-19 infections can increase risks during pregnancy, so countries should take action to ensure pregnant women and those planning pregnancies have access to COVID-19 vaccines and effective antenatal care.

The report revealed that the world must significantly accelerate progress to meet global targets for reducing maternal deaths, or else risk the lives of over 1 million more women by 2030 because “reducing maternal mortality remains one of the most pressing global health challenges,” said John Wilmoth, director of the population division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs.

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