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World Health Organization Eats Crow, Cuts Maternal Death Numbers

World Health Organization
World Health Organization

The World Health Organization made great progress in the global campaign to reduce maternal mortality today.

The WHO has cut its estimate of worldwide maternal mortality by more than a third — from about half a million deaths to about 350,000 deaths per year.

The UN Agency didn’t make much of a public announcement but it did issue a detailed report. However, it’s still not clear based on a cursory reading why some similar findings earlier rejected are now accepted.

Oh, if only we could so easily reduce all causes of death, disease and poverty.

Numbers in global health can sometimes flow like the tide.

When an organization wants to ask for help and more money to its cause, the numbers showing the need tend to rise. When you want to show that your project to reduce death or disease is working, the numbers tend to ebb.

It’s not clear why the WHO decided today to announce it has significantly revised down its estimate on global maternal mortality — by 34 percent! But that’s a pretty big adjustment.

And it happens to agree pretty closely with an estimate put out last April by a gang of number-crunchers in Seattle that WHO officials — and other organizations involved in maternal and child health — had previously criticized as wrong and even irresponsible.

“It’s close to our assessment,” said Chris Murray, director of the UW’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation. “But we still haven’t seen their data, how they arrive at these numbers.”

Why is this flap over data important? Well, reducing maternal mortality is the new black in global health, the current cause célèbre of Melinda Gates and, for many good reasons, on the top of the agenda of many organizations working to improve health and welfare in poor countries.

So that’s all the more reason to make sure we have an accurate view of the problem.


When Murray and his gang came out with their report last spring, saying we had made progress on reducing maternal deaths, some organizations (including WHO) challenged the findings.

Some even went so far as to suggest this evidence of improvement should be suppressed so as not to damage efforts to raise funds and lobby governments to do more.

We should do more. But manipulating or downplaying the evidence is not the way to do it.


About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.