Every two minutes, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth, according to a report released by United Nations agencies on Wednesday. The report titled “Trends in maternal mortality” showed alarming setbacks for women’s health over recent years, as maternal deaths either increased or stagnated in nearly all regions of the world.
While pregnancy should be a time of hope and a positive experience for all women, it is still a shockingly dangerous experience for millions around the world who lack access to high-quality, respectful healthcare,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organization (WHO). “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 tracked maternal deaths nationally, regionally, and globally from 2000 to 2020 and shows that there were an estimated 287,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2020. This marks only a slight decrease from 309,000 in 2016 when the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect. While the report presents some significant progress in reducing maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015, gains largely stalled or in some cases, even reversed, after this point.
In two of the eight UN regions, maternal mortality rates increased from 2016 to 2020. Europe and Northern America and Latin America and the Caribbean recorded increases by 17% and 15% respectively. Elsewhere, the rate stagnated. The report notes, however, that progress is possible. For example, Australia and New Zealand and Central and Southern Asia experienced significant declines (by 35% and 16% respectively) in their maternal mortality rates during the same period, as did 31 countries across the world.
The report further revealed that maternal deaths continue to be largely concentrated in the poorest parts of the world and in countries affected by conflict. In 2020, about 70% of all maternal deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa. 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 to 223 globally).
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) are the leading causes of maternal deaths. These are all largely preventable and treatable with access to high-quality and respectful healthcare.
“With immediate action, more investments in primary health care, and stronger, more resilient health systems, we can save lives, improve health and well-being, and advance the rights of and opportunities for women and adolescents,” said Juan Pablo Uribe, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank, and Director of the Global Financing Facility.
COVID-19 may have further held back progress on maternal health, and more data will be needed to show the true impacts of the pandemic on maternal deaths. However, COVID-19 infections can increase risks during pregnancy, so countries should take action to ensure pregnant women and those planning pregnancies have access to COVID-19 vaccines and effective antenatal care.
The report reveals that the world must double down on the commitment to women and adolescent health. Providing universal access to quality maternal healthcare requires sustained national and international efforts and unwavering commitments, particularly for the most vulnerable populations. It is the collective responsibility of everyone to ensure that every mother, everywhere, survives childbirth, so that she and her children can thrive.