World falls well short of goal to reduce maternal deaths

A mom and her newborn baby at the Maternal & Child Health Training Institute in Dhaka, Bangladesh. (UN Photo/Kibae Park)

Fewer mothers die from childbirth today than did 25 years ago. But the number is not nearly as low as it should be, according to a report and study released by the U.N. and World Bank today.

Only nine countries met the goal of cutting maternal deaths by 75 percent between 1990 and 2015. The world as a whole saw the rate fall by 44 percent – a major achievement that still falls well short of the Millennium Development Goal.

It is a problem concentrated in developing countries – especially sub-Saharan Africa. The region is responsible for 66 percent of maternal deaths overall. With sights now set on 2030 as the next major inflection point, efforts must concentrate on accelerating the rate of progress so that fewer mothers die.

“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,” said Babatunde Osotimehin, head of the United Nations’ Population Fund. “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.”

There are bright spots in the report. Eastern Asia, for example, saw its maternal mortality rate decrease by 72 percent from 95 deaths per 100,000 live births to 27 – approaching rates seen in wealthy countries. That kind of major progress will need to be replicated globally to meet the goal of getting the global rate to 70 deaths per 100,000 life births. The latest figures show 216 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

“Over the past 25 years, a woman’s risk of dying from pregnancy-related causes has nearly halved,” said Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General, Family, Women’s and Children’s Health. “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.”

The global health sector recognizes that progress is slow and work remains. The launch of the Every Woman, Every Child initiative – involving NGOs, U.N. agencies, governments, the private sector and civil society – aims to address these concerns. It is designed to meet a very different landscape for global health financing. Maternal mortality was the largest area of U.S. funding in 1990 and 17 percent of total global health funds.

Flows of global health financing 1990 (IHME)

Flows of global health financing 1990 (IHME)

That prominence has changed in the past 25 years with the rise of the importance of HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB and other issues. Today, maternal mortality gets 8 percent of global health spending – about as much as malaria.

Flows of global health financing 2014 (IHME)

Flows of global health financing 2014 (IHME)

The initiative released a new global strategy for reducing child and maternal deaths through 2030 to coincide with the establishment of the Sustainable Development Goals. It rallied more than $25 billion in commitments from governments and organizations. Today’s report shows that a global concerted effort is needed if the lofty goals to bring down maternal deaths are to be met.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.