A new report by four leading United Nations agencies and the World Bank estimates every two minutes, one woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth, mostly from preventable causes.
The report, “Trends in maternal mortality 2000 to 2020,” was produced by WHO, UNICEF, and the UNFPA, along with the World Bank Group and UNDESA/Population Division.
Health officials say the data presented in the report should be a wakeup call for world leaders to take action to end maternal deaths by investing in health care systems and closing the widening social and economic inequities that contribute to these deaths.
“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,” said Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director-general.
“These new statistics reveal the urgent need to ensure every woman and girl has access to critical health services before, during and after childbirth,” he said, “And that they can fully exercise their reproductive rights.”
The report finds an estimated 287,000 women around the world died from a maternal cause in 2020. That is equivalent to 800 deaths a day, or one death every two minutes.
“These numbers show persistent inequities between countries which are undermining women’s rights.,” said Anshu Banerjee, assistant director general for universal health coverage at WHO.
“There is over a hundred-fold risk of dying depending on where a woman delivers her baby, particularly in low-income countries compared to high income countries,” he said.
The statistics bear this out. While some significant progress in reducing maternal deaths was made between 2000 and 2015, the report notes this progress has largely stalled, and in some cases been reversed.
For example, between 2016 and 2020, it says the maternal mortality rate increased in Europe, Northern America, Latin America and the Caribbean.
While the number of deaths has gone up, the report says the regions have among the lowest maternal mortality rates in the world.
During this same period, the report says two regions, Australia and New Zealand, and Central and Southern Asia, reduced maternal deaths significantly. The picture is quite different in sub-Saharan Africa, which has the highest rate of maternal mortality, accounting for 70 percent of maternal deaths worldwide.
Jenny Cresswell, an epidemiologist at WHO and author of the report, said the maternal mortality ratio per 100,000 live births in sub-Saharan Africa in 2020 is estimated to be 545 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births.
“This number is 136 times bigger than MMR (maternal mortality ratio) in Australia and New Zealand, the lowest region,” Cresswell said.
She adds, “A 15-year-old girl in Chad in 2020 has a one in 15 chance of dying from a maternal cause during her lifetime, and that is 4,000 times greater than the probability in Belarus.”
In 2020, Belarus had one MMR per 100,000 live births compared to Chad, which had 1,063 MMRs per 100,000 live births.
The leading causes of maternal deaths include severe bleeding, high blood pressure, pregnancy-related infections, complications from unsafe abortions, and underlying conditions such as HIV/AIDS and malaria.
Banerjee said nearly all these maternal deaths are preventable.
“Nearly half of all pregnancies are unintended, which is highlighting the lack of access of some 270 million women globally to modern family planning methods —meaning they are unable to choose how and when to plan their families,” he says.” Many lack access to safe abortion, which increases risk of complications, including deaths associated with unsafe procedures,” said Banerjee.
Natalia Kanem, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund, said it is unacceptable that so many women continue to die needlessly during pregnancy and childbirth.
She said, “We can and must do better by urgently investing in family planning and filling the global shortage of 900,000 midwives so that every woman can get the lifesaving care she needs.
“We have the tools, knowledge, and resources to end preventable maternal deaths,” she said. “What we need now is the political will.”