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Every 2 Minutes, a Woman Dies of Childbirth or Pregnancy

The Trends in Maternal Mortality report released on February 23 by United Nations agencies highlights significant disparities in maternal health in several regions across the globe.

The report, produced by WHO, presents global, regional, and country-level maternal mortality estimates from 2000 to 2020 collected by the United Nations Maternal Mortality Estimation Inter-Agency Group (MMEIG).

The group includes the WHO, the World Bank Group, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), and the Population Division (UNDESA/Population Division).

The data shows an estimated 287,000 maternal deaths occurred worldwide in 2020. This number is only slightly lower than the 309,000 deaths recorded in 2016. The report defines maternal death as mortality due to complications related to pregnancy or childbirth, occurring during pregnancy or within six weeks after the pregnancy ends.

However, in Europe and Northern America, Latin America, and the Caribbean, the maternal death rate increased from 2016 to 2020. In contrast, Australia, New Zealand, and Central and Southern Asia experienced significant declines in maternal mortality during the same time. Moreover, the data showed this decline also occurred in 31 other countries worldwide.

Overall, the data shows maternal deaths tend to concentrate in areas with significant financial disparities and countries experiencing conflict.

For example, in 2020, around 70% of all maternal deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa. In addition, maternal mortality rates were more than double the global average in nine countries experiencing severe humanitarian crises.

The report also indicates that the leading causes of maternal mortality were pregnancy-related infections, underlying conditions such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, severe bleeding, high blood pressure, and complications from unsafe abortion.

In general, these pregnancy-related complications are typically preventable with access to high-quality healthcare.

According to the report, "community-centered primary health care can meet the needs of women, children, and adolescents. […]However, underfunding of primary health care systems, a lack of trained health care workers, and weak supply chains for medical products are threatening progress."

In a news release, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell adds, "no mother should have to fear for her life while bringing a baby into the world, especially when the knowledge and tools to treat common complications exist. Equity in healthcare gives every mother, no matter who they are or where they are, a fair chance at a safe delivery and a healthy future with their family."

Maternal mortality rates in the U.S.

In the United States, CDC data indicates that in 2020, 861 women died due to pregnancy or childbirth, compared with 754 in 2019. Overall, the maternal mortality rate for 2020 was about 24 deaths per 100,000 live births compared with around 20 deaths per 100,000 in 2019.

However, in 2020, the maternal mortality rate for non-Hispanic Black women was 2.9 times higher than for non-Hispanic White women.

In addition, CDC data indicates that mortality rates also increase with age. For example, maternal death rates in 2020 were around 14 deaths per 100,000 live births for women under age 25, about 23 for those aged 25 to 39, and approximately 108 for those aged 40 and over.

To combat the issue on a global scale, the report suggests progress to reduce maternal deaths must be accelerated in every region of the world. To help meet this objective, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for maternal deaths — which came into effect in 2016 — continues to focus on a global maternal mortality ratio (MMR) goal of less than 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births by 2030.

The WHO also offers guidelines on intrapartum care, antenatal care, and maternal and newborn care — which provide evidence-based recommendations to improve pregnancy and childbirth outcomes.

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