ISLAMABAD: Every two minutes, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth, according to the latest estimates released in a report by United Nations agencies, which emphasised that the world must significantly accelerate progress to meet global targets for reducing maternal deaths, or else risk the lives of over one million more women by 2030.

The report, “Trends in Maternal Mortality”, released on Thursday by WHO, Unicef, UNFPA, the World Bank and UN Population Division, reveals alarming setbacks for women’s health over recent years, as maternal deaths either increased or stagnated in nearly all regions of the world.

“It is unacceptable that so many women continue to die needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth. Over 280,000 fatalities in a single year are unconscionable,” said UNFPA Executive Director Dr Natalia Kanem.

“We can and must do better by urgently investing in family planning and filling the global shortage of 900,000 midwives so that

every woman can get the lifesaving care she needs. We have the tools, knowledge and resources to end preventable maternal deaths; what we need now is the political will.“

In two of the eight UN regions — Europe and Northern America, and Latin America and the Caribbean — the maternal mortality rate increased from 2016 to 2020, by 17 per cent and 15pc, respectively. Elsewhere, the rate stagnated.

The report notes, however, that progress is possible. Two regions — Australia and New Zealand, and Central and Southern Asia — experienced significant declines (by 35pc and 16pc, respectively) in their maternal mortality rates during the same period, as did 31 countries across the world.

“While pregnancy should be a time of immense hope and a positive experience for all women, it is tragically still a shockingly dangerous experience for millions around the world who lack access to high quality, respectful health care,” said WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

The report, which tracks maternal deaths nationally, regionally and globally from 2000 to 2020, shows there were an estimated 287 000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2020. This marks only a slight decrease from 309,000 in 2016 when the Sustainable Development Goals came into effect. While the report presents some significant progress in reducing maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015, gains largely stalled, or in some cases even reversed, after this point.

The report says roughly a third of women do not have even four of a recommended eight antenatal checks or receive essential postnatal care, while some 270 million women lack access to modern family planning methods. Exercising control over their reproductive health — particularly decisions about if and when to have children — is critical to ensure that women can plan and space childbearing and protect their health.

Inequities related to income, education, race or ethnicity further increase risks for marginalised pregnant women, who have the least access to essential maternity care but are most likely to experience underlying health problems in pregnancy.

“For millions of families, the miracle of childbirth is marred by the tragedy of maternal deaths,” said Unicef Executive Director Catherine Russell. “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.

In total numbers, maternal deaths continue to be largely concentrated in the poorest parts of the world and in countries affected by conflict. In 2020, about 70 per cent of all maternal deaths were in sub-Saharan Africa. In nine countries facing severe humanitarian crises, maternal mortality rates were more than double the world average.

“This report provides yet another stark reminder of the urgent need to double down on our commitment to women and adolescent health,” said Juan Pablo Uribe, Global Director for Health, Nutrition and Population at the World Bank, and Director of the Global Financing Facility.

Published in Dawn, February 24th, 2023

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