It isn't that childbirth is more inherently dangerous in countries where many women die in childbirth than in those where relatively few die. The women who survive, statistically speaking, are getting appropriate help from trained attendants.
"...The main complications that lead to death during pregnancy or childbirth are fairly common among all women, regardless of where they live," write the authors of an article titled "Are We Making Progress in Maternal Mortality?" in the May 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.
Hemorrhage, which most often occurs right after birth, is the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths globally, accounting for 35 percent of all deaths in childbirth, according to the World Health Organization. And in fact, hemorrhage was the second most common complication seen in pregnancies in the United States in 2000.
WHO identified the second most common cause of maternal death as hypertensive disorders — pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, for example. Again, these disorders are a common problem all over the world, but women with access to good medical care have a good chance of surviving them.
The countries that are most dangerous for pregnant women are those suffering through wars, or burdened with a large population with HIV/AIDS, the authors write.
In general, poor women die in childbirth more often than affluent ones, rural women more often than urban ones. These populations are more vulnerable because they often deliver their babies without the benefit of skilled birth attendants, and lack access to obstetrical services like surgery by Cesarean section.
Sub-Saharan Africa, with widespread political unrest and HIV/AIDS infection, "has the greatest burden of maternal mortality," even though most countries there are seeing "small but promising" decreases in pregnancy-related deaths.
Worldwide, there is considerable cause for hope, Paxton and Wardlaw write. Maternal mortality has decreased globally by more than one-third since 1990, according to United Nations estimates.
"Dramatic improvements in China and other Asian countries...are associated with economic improvement, decreasing fertility rates and strengthening of health systems...," the authors write.
"The overall rate of decline in global maternal mortality, 2.3 percent, is lower than the 5.5 percent MDG target but is heartening nonetheless," they write.
Image: "Pregnant Graffiti" by Petteri Sulonen