UN-backed scheme aims to reduce maternal mortality by boosting health systems

25 September 2008 – The United Nations has teamed up with world leaders to launch a new initiative to strengthen health systems in an effort to reduce the number of women who die in pregnancy and childbirth, one of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) with a 2015 deadline.

The task force on maternal mortality, which will be co-chaired by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown and World Bank President Robert Zoellick, will focus on innovative financing to strengthen health care systems and pay for health care workers.

The recommendations that will flow from the group, which will include UN World Health Organization (WHO) Director-General Margaret Chan and several global leaders, will potentially save the lives of 10 million women and children by 2015. They will be presented to next year’s meeting of the leaders of the Group of Eight (G-8) industrialized nations, to be held in Italy.

“Despite two decades of efforts, the world failed to make a dent in the high number of maternal deaths,” Ms. Chan told a news conference in New York, attributing the lack of progress to insufficient investment in health systems, the training of health workers and the strengthening of facilities and services.

“We still have time, but just barely, to make up for this failure,” she added.

Welcoming the task force announced today, she stressed that it will take additional resources, “over and above what has already been committed,” to strengthen health systems.

According to WHO, around 500,000 women die in pregnancy or childbirth every year – about one woman every minute. Nearly all maternal deaths – 99 per cent – occur in developing countries, and half of those are in Africa.

“The number of maternal deaths will not go down until more women have access to skilled attendants at birth and to emergency obstetric care,” Ms. Chan stressed.

In a joint statement issued, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Bank and WHO pledged to enhance support over the next five years to the countries with the highest maternal mortality.

Their efforts aim to help countries achieve the two MDG 5 targets of reducing maternal mortality by 75 per cent and achieving universal access to reproductive health by 2015, as well as contribute to achieving MDG 4 on reducing child mortality.

UNFPA’s Executive Director, Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, has called on Member States to speed up efforts for reproductive, maternal and newborn health, noting that the world will not achieve the MDGs without more investment in the health and rights of women and ensuring universal access to reproductive health.

“It would cost the world $6 billion, less than a day-and-a-half of military spending, to stop women from dying in childbirth. We urge all governments to step up funding for reproductive health and save women’s lives.”

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