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The WHO is improving data on stillbirths, maternal and neonatal deaths

(Credit: GSK/Flickr)

The World Health Organization (WHO) is bolstering efforts to help countries improve their data on stillbirths and maternal and neonatal deaths, the majority of which are preventable with quality health care during pregnancy and childbirth.

“We need to ensure all births and deaths are counted and that we can understand what to do to prevent future deaths, no matter where they occur,” said Ian Askew, WHO director of reproductive health and research, in a statement.

According to the U.N. health agency, 2.7 million babies die within the first month of life, 2.6 million babies are stillborn and more than 300,000 women die in childbirth every year.

“By reviewing the causes of maternal and infant deaths, countries can improve quality of health care, take corrective actions and prevent millions of families from enduring the pain of losing their infants or mothers,” Askew said.

Most stillbirths and neonatal deaths are never even registered by health systems, the WHO stressed, much less investigated to determine causal factors.

In an effort to improve countries’ data on these types of deaths, the WHO launched three new publications on Tuesday. The first, WHO Application of the International Classification of Disease-10 to deaths during the perinatal period (ICD-PM), is aimed at accurately capturing and classifying the causes and timing of stillbirths and neonatal deaths, as well as the mother’s health condition.

Another publication, titled Time to respond: a report on the global implementation of maternal death surveillance and response, helps countries reinforce their maternal mortality review process in and outside hospitals; and the third, Making Every Baby Count: Audit and Review of Stillbirths and Neonatal Deaths, targets improving the investigation of death data in order to implement better solutions.

“Every time a death is reviewed it has the potential to tell a story about what could have been done to save a mother and her baby,” said Anthony Costello, WHO director of maternal, children’s and adolescents’ health, in a statement.

Today, the vast majority of stillbirths, maternal and neonatal deaths occur in lower- and middle-income countries, particularly in conflict zones. Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia are the most affected regions, primarily because of weak health systems.

India was ranked first in the world for neonatal deaths and stillbirths, according to The Lancet’s 2016 report, with nearly 700,000 neonatal deaths and 600,000 stillborn babies reported in the country last year.

Still, there has been significant long-term progress in reducing global mortality rates for both mothers and their newborn children. The world’s neonatal mortality rate fell from 36 to 19 deaths per 1,000 live births – a 47 percent decline – between 1990 and 2015, according to UNICEF. The majority of those neonatal deaths today are due to complications related to preterm birth, intrapartum events such as birth asphyxia, or infections such as pneumonia, according to UNICEF.

Maternal mortality has also seen huge global reductions over the last few decades – a 44 percent reduction from 1990 to 2015, which is an average annual rate of reduction of 2.3 percent, UNICEF reported. Still, this is just half of the 5.5 percent annual rate needed to achieve the 75 percent reduction in maternal mortality targeted for 2015 in the U.N.’s Millennium Development Goal 5.


About Author

Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email or see her latest work at