Maternal deaths halved in 20 years, but faster progress needed

Posted: 17 May 2012

The number of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth worldwide has been cut almost in half in the past 20 years, but much more remains to be done, according to a study released today by several United Nations agencies.

Lactating and pregnant mothers’ group meeting Nepal.
Lactating and pregnant mothers’ group meeting Nepal. Photo © UNFPA

The report, Trends in Maternal Mortality 1990 to 2010, said about 287,000 women died from pregnancy-related complications in 2010: one every two minutes or 800 per day. That is down 47 percent from 1990 levels. Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa account for 85 percent of those deaths, and a third of them occur in Nigeria and India alone.

Although a woman’s lifetime risk of dying in childbirth remains very high in sub-Saharan Africa – 1 in 39, compared to 1 in 3,800 in developed countries – that rate is down by a quarter since 1992.

More than 30 African countries take part in the Campaign for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa (CARMMA), which sets clear country-specific goals for increasing the use of both modern contraceptives and trained midwives, nurses or doctors during delivery. Today’s report attributed the recent gains chiefly to those two measures, along with greater access for mothers to antiretroviral drugs against HIV/AIDS.

Sudanese TBA, ZamZam
Fatima Abdullah Abou, a traditional birth attendant, explaining how she has helped hundreds of women deliver their babies over the years at Zam Zam internally displaced persons camp, Darfur, Sudan. When complications arise, she brings her patients to the nearest clinic. UNFPA is helping to reduce maternal and infant mortality rates in the region, which has suffered from years of civil strife. Photo © Sven Torfinn/Panos/UNFPA

“This shows that the enhanced effort of countries, supported by UNFPA and other development partners, is paying off,” said Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, Executive Director of UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, which sponsored the study along with UNICEF, the World Health Organization and the World Bank.

But faster progress is needed to reach the Millennium Development Goal, set in 2000, of reducing global maternal mortality by 75 percent by 2015, Osotimehin noted. “We can’t stop here. Our work must continue to make every pregnancy wanted and every childbirth safe," he said.

“The good news is that the vast majority of maternal deaths are entirely preventable,” said Jill Sheffield, president of Women Deliver. “The progress Africa has made on maternal health to date shows us that success is possible.”