Feature story

Steady progress in saving mothers’ lives

06 May 2014

Maternal deaths have decreased by 45% since 1990 according to a new report released on 6 May by the Maternal Mortality Estimation Inter-Agency Group. Entitled Trends in maternal mortality: 1990 to 2013, the report estimates that 289 000 women died in 2013 owing to complications in pregnancy and childbirth, down from 523 000 in 1990.

Including new data as well as improved methods of estimating births and all female deaths, the report notes that 11 countries that had high levels of maternal mortality in 1990—Bhutan, Cambodia, Cabo Verde, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Lao People’s Democratic Republic, Maldives, Nepal, Romania, Rwanda and Timor-Leste—have already reached the Millennium Development Goal target of a 75% reduction in maternal mortality from the 1990 rate by 2015. Based on these latest trends, however, many low- and middle-income countries will not achieve this goal.

A major challenge found by the report in addressing maternal deaths is the lack of accurate data. Uncounted or unknown causes of death make it difficult for national health programmes to allocate resources where they are needed most.

New information on causes of death

Another report released on 6 May sheds more light on why childbearing women are dying when giving birth. The World Health Organization has released Global causes of maternal death: a WHO systematic analysis in the Lancet Global Health. That study finds that more than one in four maternal deaths are caused by pre-existing medical conditions, such as diabetes, HIV, malaria and obesity, whose health impacts can be aggravated by pregnancy.

Having strong health systems—with facilities that have adequate health workers, equipment and medicines—continue to be key to delivering quality health care to save the lives of women and their newborn babies, according to the report.

There is growing consensus worldwide that ending preventable maternal deaths can be achieved by ensuring that every woman has access to quality health care. Global and national targets beyond 2015 will be important for tracking progress in reducing maternal deaths and ensuring that maternal health continues to be a global development priority.