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The number of mothers who die due to pregnancy or childbirth is 'unacceptable'

A traditional birth attendant massages a pregnant woman before assisting in delivering her baby in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya.
A traditional birth attendant massages a pregnant woman before assisting in delivering her baby in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya.

That's what epidemiologist Jenny Cresswell of the World Health Organization said of death rate data in a new report she authored — "equivalent to almost 800 deaths a day or a death every 2 minutes."

There's been virtually no progress in reducing the number of women who die due to pregnancy or childbirth worldwide in recent years. That's the conclusion of a sweeping new report released jointly by the World Health Organization and other United Nations agencies as well as the World Bank.

The report estimates that there were 287,000 maternal deaths globally in 2020 — the most recent year these statistics cover. That's the equivalent of a woman dying every two minutes — or nearly 800 deaths a day.

And it represents only about a 7% reduction since 2016 — when world leaders committed to a so-called "sustainable development goal" of slashing maternal mortality rates by more than a third by 2030.

The impact on women is distributed extremely unequally: Two regions – Australia and New Zealand, and Central and Southern Asia – actually saw significant declines (by 35% and 16% respectively) in their maternal mortality rates. Meanwhile, 70% of maternal deaths are in just one region: sub-Saharan Africa.

Many of these deaths are due to causes like severe bleeding, high blood pressure and pregnancy-related infections that could be prevented with access to basic health care and family planning. Yet the report also finds that worldwide about a third of women don't get even half of the recommended eight prenatal checkups.

At a press conference to unveil the report, world health officials described the findings as "unacceptable" and called for "urgent" investments in family planning and filling a global shortage of an estimated 900,000 midwives.

"No woman should die in childbirth," said Dr. Anshu Banerjee, an assistant director general of WHO. "It's a wake-up call for us to take action."

He said this was all the more so given that the report doesn't capture the likely further setbacks since 2020 resulting from the impacts of the COVID pandemic and current global economic slowdowns.

"That means that it's going to be more difficult for low income countries, particularly, to invest in health," said Banerjee. Yet without substantially more money and focus on building up primary health care to improve a woman's chances of surviving pregnancy, he said, "We are at risk of even further declines."

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