Maternal Mortality

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Maternal Health

WHO definition

The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines maternal health as referring to the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period. While motherhood is often a positive and fulfilling experience, for too many women it is associated with suffering, ill-health and even death.

MDG 5 : improving maternal health 
Improve maternal health.jpg

Improving maternal health is one of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by the international community at the United Nations Millennium Summit in 2000.

In Millennium Development Goal 5 (MDG5), countries have committed to reducing the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters between 1990 and 2015. However, between 1990 and 2005 the maternal mortality ratio declined by only 5%. Achieving Millennium Development Goal 5 requires accelerating progress.

WHO is committed to achieving the Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal deaths by three-quarters. This year's World Health Day on 7 April, aims to raise awareness of maternal, newborn and child health, and highlight these issues as a priority for governments and the international community.

Launched on World Health Day, The world health report 2005 – Make every mother and child count, calls for greater access to live-saving care and interventions. It also advocates a "continuum of care" approach for women and children that begins before pregnancy and extends through childbirth into the baby's childhood.

Country Focus

The case of India

Video: "In Silence: Maternal Mortality in India"

The case of Sierra Leone

Video: "No Woman Should Die Giving Birth: Maternal Mortality in Sierra Leone"

Why do so many women still die in pregnancy or childbirth?

The major direct causes of maternal morbidity and mortality include haemorrhage, infection, high blood pressure, unsafe abortion, and obstructed labour

According to WHO,  every minute, at least one woman dies from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth – that means 529 000 women a year. In addition, for every woman who dies in childbirth, around 20 more suffer injury, infection or disease – approximately 10 million women each year.

Five direct complications account for more than 70% of maternal deaths: haemorrhage (25%), infection (15%), unsafe abortion (13%), eclampsia (very high blood pressure leading to seizures – 12%), and obstructed labour (8%). While these are the main causes of maternal death, unavailable, inaccessible, unaffordable, or poor quality care is fundamentally responsible. They are detrimental to social development and wellbeing, as some one million children are left motherless each year. These children are 10 times more likely to die within two years of their mothers' death.

Women need not die in childbirth. We must give a young woman the information and support she needs to control her reproductive health, help her through a pregnancy, and care for her and her newborn well into childhood. The vast majority of maternal deaths could be prevented if women had access to quality family planning services, skilled care during pregnancy, childbirth and the first month after delivery, or post-abortion care services and where permissible, safe abortion services. 15% of pregnancies and childbirths need emergency obstetric care because of risks that are difficult to predict. A working health system with skilled personnel is key to saving these women's lives.

Strategies for preventing maternal mortality

The United Nations Population Fund's (UNFPA) strategy for preventing maternal mortality includes:

  • Family planning to reduce unintended pregnancies
  • Skilled care at all births
  • Timely emergency obstetric care for all women who develop complications.

UNFPA also advocates at many levels for the right of mothers to give birth safely. It spearheads the global Campaign to End Fistula, a collaborative initiative to prevent this devastating injury of childbirth and to restore the health and dignity of those who have been living with its consequences. And it is working to address the shortage of skilled midwives in much of the developing world.

Recent study on drop of maternal mortality

A new study published on April 12 2010 in the medical journal The Lancet found that the number of maternal deaths has gone from over 500,000 in 1980 to about 350,000 a significant decrease on a major challenge to health systems worldwide. Coincidently enough, a few days later, the United Nations outlined steps for a multifaceted campaign “The Joint Action Plan” to combat maternal mortality worldwide.
At a press conference announcing the kick start of a fundraising campaign for public health issues UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon “welcomed” the study and said “the more information the better” even if it’s results contradict a report by the Partnership for Maternal, Newborn and Child Health (WHO) claiming that progress in maternal health was at a standstill.
However, UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan said an inter-agency group was conducting an update and the early signal is that the trends are similar to what The Lancet reported.

UNFPA update on Maternal Mortality statistics

Read more on how the press reported on this news :

  • The Lancet 12.04.2010 : Maternal mortality for 181 countries, 1980—2008: a systematic analysis of progress towards Millennium Development Goal - read the Online Summary or PDF document.


World Health Organization

United Nations Population Fund

See also

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