‘Shockingly dangerous’: WHO raises alarm on pregnancy risks
UN health agency says one woman dies every two minutes during pregnancy or childbirth mostly from treatable conditions.
The World Health Organization (WHO) says one woman dies every two minutes during pregnancy or childbirth, according to the latest data, with too few countries in the world managing to substantially reduce maternal death rates since 2016.
The report, Trends in Maternal Mortality, showed that while there was significant progress in reducing maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015, those gains stalled or were even reversed in the five years to 2020.
“While pregnancy should be a time of immense hope and a positive experience for all women, it is tragically still a shockingly dangerous experience for millions around the world who lack access to high quality, respectful health care,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in a statement on Thursday.
“These new statistics reveal the urgent need to ensure every woman and girl has access to critical health services before, during and after childbirth, and that they can fully exercise their reproductive rights.”
The report, which tracks maternal deaths nationally, regionally and globally from 2000 to 2020, showed that in two of the eight United Nations regions – Europe and Northern America, and Latin America and the Caribbean – the maternal mortality rate increased from 2016 to 2020, by 17 percent and 15 percent, respectively. Elsewhere, the rate stagnated.
Two regions did make progress. In Australia and New Zealand, the maternal death rate dropped by 35 percent, while in Southern Asia it fell by 16 percent.
“For millions of families, the miracle of childbirth is marred by the tragedy of maternal deaths,” UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell said in the statement. “No mother should have to fear for her life while bringing a baby into the world, especially when the knowledge and tools to treat common complications exist. Equity in healthcare gives every mother, no matter who they are or where they are, a fair chance at a safe delivery and a healthy future with their family.”
Severe bleeding, high blood pressure, pregnancy-related infections, complications from unsafe abortion, and underlying conditions that can be aggravated by pregnancy (such as HIV/AIDS and malaria) were the leading causes of maternal deaths, the report said, noting that such conditions were largely preventable and treatable.
In total numbers, maternal deaths continue to be largely concentrated in the poorest parts of the world and in countries affected by conflict.
In 2020, about 70 percent of all maternal deaths were in southern parts of Africa, while in nine countries facing severe humanitarian crises, maternal mortality rates were more than double the world average (551 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, compared with 223 per 100,000 live births globally).
The UN said more needed to be done to support women’s health by increasing funding to healthcare systems, training more specialised healthcare workers such as midwives, and improving supply chains for key medical supplies.
About a third of women do not have even four of the recommended eight antenatal checks or receive essential postnatal care, while some 270 million women do not have access to modern family planning methods, the report said. COVID-19 might also have held back progress on maternal health, it added, but said more work needed to be done to show the effect of the pandemic.
United Nations Population Fund Executive Director Natalia Kanem said it was “unacceptable” that so many women continued to die needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth.
“Over 280,000 fatalities in a single year is unconscionable,” she said. “We can and must do better. We have the tools, knowledge and resources to end preventable maternal deaths; what we need now is the political will.”