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Thalif Deen | 13 NOVEMBER, 2015

Maternal Deaths Decline by 44%, Says New Study

Photograph of a Kashmiri mother and child taken by Jay Seldin


UNITED NATIONS (IPS): When world leaders adopted a set of eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at a summit meeting in September 2000, one of the heavily-publicised goals was the commitment to reduce extreme poverty and hunger by the end of 2015.

But an equally important goal– that drew less attention– was Goal number Five aimed at improving maternal health – and reducing by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio, by the end of 2015.

A new report, released Thursday, focuses specifically on maternal deaths, which have fallen by 44 per cent since 1990— described as a significant improvement, but still falling short of total success.

World-wide, maternal deaths dropped from about 532,000 in 1990 to an estimated 303,000 this year, according to the report, the last in a series surveying progress under the MDGs.

This equates to an estimated global maternal death ratio of 216 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, down from 385 in 1990, says the joint report by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the UN children’s agency UNICEF, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Bank Group and the UN’s Population Division.

Maternal death is defined as the death of a woman during pregnancy, childbirth or within 6 weeks after birth.

Despite global improvements, however, only nine countries achieved the MDG 5 target of reducing the maternal death ratio by at least 75 per cent between 1990 and 2015.

Those countries include Bhutan, Cabo Verde, Cambodia, Iran, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, Mongolia, Rwanda and Timor-Leste.

Despite this important progress, the maternal death ratio in some of these countries remains higher than the global average, says the report titled ‘Trends in Maternal Mortality: 1990 to 2015’.

“The MDGs triggered unprecedented efforts to reduce maternal mortality,” said Dr. Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health.

“Over the past 25 years, a woman’s risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes has nearly halved. That’s real progress, although it is not enough. We know that we can virtually end these deaths by 2030 and this is what we are committing to work towards.”

Achieving that goal will require much more effort, according to Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, the Executive Director of UNFPA.

“Many countries with high maternal death rates will make little progress, or will even fall behind, over the next 15 years if we don’t improve the current number of available midwives and other health workers with midwifery skills,” he said.

“If we don’t make a big push now, in 2030 we’ll be faced, once again, with a missed target for reducing maternal deaths.”

The report also points out that ensuring access to high-quality health services during pregnancy and childbirth is helping to save lives.

Essential health interventions include: practising good hygiene to reduce the risk of infection; injecting oxytocin immediately after childbirth to reduce the risk of severe bleeding; identifying and addressing potentially fatal conditions like pregnancy-induced high-blood pressure; and ensuring access to sexual and reproductive health services and family planning for women.

“As we have seen with all of the health-related MDGs, health-system strengthening needs to be supplemented with attention to other issues to reduce maternal deaths,” said UNICEF Deputy Executive Director Geeta Rao Gupta.

“The education of women and girls, in particular the most marginalized, is key to their survival and that of their children. Education provides them with the knowledge to challenge traditional practices that endanger them and their children.”

By the end of this year, about 99 per cent of the world’s maternal deaths will have occurred in developing regions, with sub-Saharan Africa alone accounting for two in three (66 per cent) deaths.

But that represents a major improvement: sub-Saharan Africa saw a nearly 45 per cent decrease in maternal death ratio, from 987 to 546 per 100,000 live births between 1990 and 2015, according to the report.

The greatest improvement of any region was recorded in Eastern Asia, where the maternal death ratio fell from approximately 95 to 27 per 100,000 live births (a reduction of 72 per cent).

In developed regions, maternal deaths fell 48 per cent between 1990 and 2015, from 23 to 12 per 100,000 live births.

Besides poverty and hunger, the MDGs also included goals to eliminate HIV/AIDS, provide adequate shelter, promote gender equality, achieve universal education, protect the global environment and build a global North-South partnership for development.

At a summit meeting in September, world leaders adopted a set of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), a successor to MDGs, with the objective of meeting these new goals by 2030.

The SDGs have a target of reducing maternal deaths to fewer than 70 per 100,000 live births globally.

Reaching that goal will require more than tripling the pace of progress – from the 2.3 per cent annual improvement in maternal death ratio that was recorded between 1990 and 2015 to 7.5 per cent per year beginning next year.

“The SDG goal of ending maternal deaths by 2030 is ambitious and achievable provided we redouble our efforts,” said Dr. Tim Evans, Senior Director of Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank Group.

“The recently launched Global Financing Facility in Support of Every Woman Every Child, which focuses on smarter, scaled and sustainable financing, will help countries deliver essential health services to women and children,” he said.

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