Greater progress needed despite recent drop in maternal deaths, say UN agencies

Goal 5 of the MDGs: improve maternal health

15 September 2010 – While the number of maternal deaths has recently dropped by one third, United Nations agencies today stressed that more must be done to save the lives of women given that 1,000 of them still die every day due to complications during pregnancy and childbirth.

According to a new report released by the World Health Organization (WHO), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank, the number of maternal deaths decreased by 34 per cent from an estimated 546,000 in 1990 to 358,000 in 2008.

“The global reduction in maternal death rates is encouraging news,” said WHO Director-General Margaret Chan. “Countries where women are facing a high risk of death during pregnancy or childbirth are taking measures that are proving effective; they are training more midwives, and strengthening hospitals and health centres to assist pregnant women.

“No woman should die due to inadequate access to family planning and to pregnancy and delivery care,” she added.

At the same time, WHO noted that while the progress cited in the report is notable, the annual rate of decline is less than half of what is needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) target of reducing the maternal mortality ratio by 75 per cent between 1990 and 2015.

It pointed out that reaching Goal 5 will require an annual decline of 5.5 per cent. The 34 per cent decline since 1990 translates into an average annual decline of just 2.3 per cent.

“To achieve our global goal of improving maternal health and to save women’s lives we need to do more to reach those who are most at risk,” said Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF.

“That means reaching women in rural areas and poorer households, women from ethnic minorities and indigenous groups, and women living with HIV and in conflict zones.”

Pregnant women still die from four major causes: severe bleeding after childbirth, infections, hypertensive disorders, and unsafe abortions. About 1,000 women died due to these complications every day in 2008. Of these, 570 lived in sub-Saharan Africa, 300 in South Asia and five in high-income countries.

“The risk of a woman in a developing country dying from a pregnancy-related cause during her lifetime is about 36 times higher compared to a woman living in a developed country,” WHO noted, adding that countries need to invest in their health systems and in the quality of care to prevent many more women from dying.

“Every birth should be safe and every pregnancy wanted,” UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid stated. “The lack of maternal health care violates women’s rights to life, health, equality, and non-discrimination.

“MDG 5 can be achieved,” she added, “but we urgently need to address the shortage of health workers and step up funding for reproductive health services.”

WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA and the World Bank are working with the countries in greatest need to help them develop and align their national health plans to boost progress in maternal and newborn health.

“Given the weak state of health systems in many countries, we must work closely with governments, aid donors and agencies, and other partners to strengthen these systems so that women gain significantly better access to quality family planning and other reproductive health services, skilled midwives at their births, emergency obstetric care, and post-natal care for mothers and newborns,” said Tamar Manuelyan Atinc, Vice President for Human Development at the World Bank.


News Tracker: past stories on this issue

Efforts to boost maternal and child health falling short, UN report finds

Related Stories



In-depth Interviews