Surprises in a new study of maternal deaths

Scratch that last post.

It appears that societies around the world are working to improve the survival rate for mothers in birth after all -- and that their efforts are working.

Even as I was tapping out Monday's post, The Lancet was publishing a new study online that shows that maternal mortality has actually been dropping dramatically in many countries.

"The overall message, for the first time in a generation, is one of persistent and welcome progress," Lancet editor-in-chief Richard Horton wrote in a commentary that accompanied the study.Pregnant Graffiti

The number of maternal deaths per year worldwide has been tallied at 500,000+ in 2005, based on United Nations survey published in 2007. However, the new study, which was conducted by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, and funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, shows deaths to have fallen from 526,300 in 1980 to 342 ,900 in 2008. That's good news.

Not only that, but taking out deaths from HIV/AIDS, which has emerged as a major factor in global maternal mortality, the figure would have been 281,500 in 2008.

More than half of maternal deaths are concentrated in six countries-- India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Afghanistan, which has the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, this survey states. (Italy has the lowest rate, according to this report.)

The United States, Canada, Denmark and Norway are among the prosperous nations that are experiencing increases in maternal mortality (less than 1 percent for the U.S.). More comprehensive reporting could account for the increase, the researchers noted.

Not everyone is excited by the new survey's findings, Horton wrote in his commentary.

"Even before the paper ... was submitted to us, we were invited to “delay” or “hold” publication," by some members of  what Horton calls the "global health community" who fret that the relatively rosy picture the new study paints will lead to a flagging interest in working to make birth safer around the world.

Horton dismisses those worries, but expresses concern that the figures in the new report are so different from those in the 2007 UN survey.

"A process needs to be put in place urgently to discuss these figures, their implications, and the actions, global and in country, that should follow," he writes.

So it appears that MDG5, the Millennium Development Goal that has to do with improving birth safety for moms is, after all, alive and well.

"This new evidence suggests there is a much greater reason for optimism than has been generally perceived, and that substantial decreases in the (maternal mortality rate) are possible over a fairly short time," the report states.

Image by Petteri Sulonen

Women’s lives not a priority?

The world is seeing progress on such worthy goals as ending hunger and extreme poverty, conquering pervasive health menaces like AIDS and malaria, achieving universal primary education and ensuring environmental sustainability.

However, of the eight Millennium Development Goals the United Nations and partner organizations set in 2000 for achievement by 2015, lowering the number of the world's women who die in childbirth is the farthest from being met, according to UN Population Fund Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, speaking at a meeting last fall  in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

"Women’s lives, dreams and rights have not been given the priority attention they deserve,” Obaid said.

"We know what works and needs to be done," Obaid said -- education, medical supplies and services that include prenatal care, the availability of skilled birth attendants and emergency obstetrical care.

But while funding for other health goals has risen significantly during this period, money tagged to improve reproductive health has remained static, Obaid said. And so the birth story continues to be a tragic one in 500,000 families throughout the world every year.

“It would cost the world $23 billion per year to stop women from having unintended pregnancies and dying in childbirth, and to save millions of newborns. This amounts to less than 10 days of global military spending. Instead, the world loses $15 billion in productivity each year by allowing mothers and newborns to die,” she said.

See more recent post, which contradicts this one!