This week the World Health Organization (WHO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Bank and the UN released a report with the maternal mortality numbers for 2013. The good news is that maternal deaths are down 45% since 1990, dropping from 523,000 in 1990 to an estimated 289,000 in 2013. Even with the decline, however, a woman dies every two minutes due to complications from pregnancy or childbirth, mostly from preventable causes.
There are large disparities in maternal deaths between countries and regions, with 99 percent of maternal deaths taking place in the developing world. Sixty percent of all maternal deaths occur in just 10 countries: India, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Tanzania, Kenya, China, and Uganda. The riskiest region in the world to give birth is sub-Saharan Africa. Chad and Somalia have the highest lifetime risk of maternal death due to pregnancy or childbirth-related cause: in Chad a woman has a 1 in 15 lifetime risk and in Somalia a woman has 1 in 18 lifetime risk.
Eleven countries that had high maternal mortality in 1990 reached their MDG target of reducing maternal mortality by 75 percent. Those countries are Bhutan, Cambodia, Cabo Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Laos, Maldives, Nepal, Romania, Rwanda, and Timor-Leste. While many countries are not on track to meet their MDG target, since 2003 the maternal mortality rate has increased in only eight countries.
Unfortunately the United States is one of those eight countries, along with Afghanistan, Belize, El Salvador, Guinea-Bissau, Greece, Seychelles, and South Sudan. In 2013 18.5 women died per 100,000 births in the United States, whereas in 1990 the number was 12.4.
The best news is that we know what needs to be done to save more lives. We need to ensure that girls are allowed to stay in school and be girls, not brides. Right now 15 million girls aged 15-19 give birth every year, and there is a much higher risk of death and injury associated with adolescent pregnancy. Next, we need to ensure that young people are given comprehensive sex education, that more skilled birth attendants are trained, and that they have access to the equipment and medicine needed for a safe delivery. With abortion complications accounting for eight percent of maternal deaths, women also need to be able to access safe abortion care. Finally women and girls need access to family planning services. Right now there are 222 million women in the world who would like to avoid a pregnancy, but are not using modern contraception. If their need for family planning services and information were met it would prevent 79,000 maternal deaths.
This Mother’s day I will be joining the world in celebrating our mothers, and I will be thanking my mom, in particular, for always being there for me and teaching me the importance of giving back. But I will also be thinking of the 800 women who will die on Mother’s Day from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, and how those many of those lives could have been saved.
Posted by Jennie Wetter, Director of Public Policy