Monday, April 19, 2010

Maternal Health: Over 500,000 die in pregnancy or childbirth every year, 10 to 15 million suffer long-lasting disabilities and other diseases

NAIROBI (IDN) – They give life almost in every way – they deliver generation after generation; they plant seeds and grow crops, feed their families and sell food in rural markets; they bring water and heat and sacrifice themselves for the sake of their people be them newborns, adults or elderly. They save biodiversity – the key source of the future of every living thing. In brief, they develop and maintain the life cycle.

Yet, they are the victims of a nearly invisible, unheard of, silent crime as millions of them die every year from easily and inexpensively preventable causes.

Their death figures are spine-chilling: over 500,000 women and girls die in pregnancy or childbirth every single year, and 10 to 15 million suffer annually long-lasting disabilities and other diseases, let alone unsafe abortions everywhere. For example, in Mexico alone, up to 500,000 illegal abortions occur annually.

Africa tops the list of countries with the world highest maternal mortality rates.


In fact, nine out of ten most affected countries on Earth are African: Swaziland, Angola, Lesotho, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Liberia, Mozambique, Djibouti, and the Central African Republic. The U.S. and allies’ occupied Afghanistan is the sole exception in this sad record, ranking seventh on the list.

This drama takes place on the continent of Africa home to one billion inhabitants – a continent where small farmers produce up to 80 percent of food in the poorest countries, being most of them women.

The burden and vital responsibility borne by women is particularly significant in a continent, that has been for long decades the scenario of bloody armed conflicts that take the life of men leaving women – who are often raped and forced to pregnancy – as the sole source of sustaining life.

Anyway, practically all these deaths taking place in all poor countries and even some industrialized societies are caused by avoidable diseases and practices. They can be prevented and there are enough medical and non-medical ways to do so.

One of them is to increase women's access to emergency care and qualified midwives. “This alone would reduce maternal mortality rates by three-quarters,” assured the UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon.

How? The UN chief explains that this means “strengthening healthcare infrastructure, and finding better ways to engage development aid”.


Development aid implies talking about resources. But money should not be a problem – all that is needed is less than ten days of global military spending. There would still be money enough to spend on warfare during 355 days a year.

In spite of that, the target of slashing maternal mortality and ensuring universal access to reproductive health is the furthest from success of all the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) the world set itself in 2000.

Women are dying because for too many years, women’s lives, dreams and rights have not been given the priority attention they deserve, UN Population Fund (UNFPA) executive director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid said on maternal health, the fifth of eight MDGs, slated for achievement by 2015.

“Maternal death and disability is one of the greatest moral, human rights and development challenges of our time.”

An estimated 500,000 women globally die each year while giving birth and Obaid called maternal mortality “the world’s largest health inequity” with the poor having the least access to needed services.

This reference to health inequity is a fact – less than one in 17,000 women in Sweden dies in childbirth, while in Sierra Leone, the number rises to one in eight, according to the UN.


The UNFPA chief went further: “I say life and death is a political decision because we know what works and needs to be done.”

With just five years remaining in the countdown to 2015, urgent action is needed, she stressed, calling for “scaling up a comprehensive package of sexual and reproductive health information, supplies and services, including safe delivery with skilled attendance at birth and emergency obstetric care”.

On resources, Obaid explained that during this decade funding for reproductive health has remained at the same level while that for other health areas increased substantially.

Then she called on governments, organizations and financial institutions, in the North and in the South, to recommit and invest in sexual and reproductive health, including family planning, as an urgent priority.

Regarding needed resources, UNFPA chief explained that “It would cost the world 23 billion dollars per year to stop women from having unintended pregnancies and dying in childbirth, and to save millions of newborns.”

The figure may seem very big. However, “this amounts to less than 10 days of global military spending. Instead, the world loses 15 billion dollars in productivity each year by allowing mothers and newborns to die.”


The United Nations outlined steps for a multi-pronged campaign to fight the scourge.

Calling for urgent and strategic efforts, the Joint Action Plan will urge all stakeholders, developed and developing countries, civil society actors, private businesses, philanthropic institutions and the multilateral system to each offer new initiatives.

The Plan will also adopt an accountability framework that will keep maternal and child health high on the national and international development agenda.

“The fact remains that one preventable maternal death is too many; hundreds of thousands are simply unacceptable – this, in the 21st century,” Ban stated on the eve of a formal meeting that he convened on April 15, 2010 to further develop a set of concrete actions to advance the Plan.

It has been 10 years since the launch of the Millennium Development Goals” Ban said of the ambitious targets set by the UN Summit of 2000 to slash a host of social ills by 2015, including reducing the maternal mortality ratio by three quarters.

Nevertheless, the UN chief said, for too long, maternal and child health has been at the back of the MDGs train, but we know it can be the engine of development.


“The clock is ticking,” he said, between now and the MDG Summit in September, every partner must step up. Developed countries can mobilize the full range of human and material resources – and increase their financial commitments.

Developing countries can meanwhile update national health plans to prioritize financing, implementation and monitoring of delivery services for women and children.

Businesses can develop new drugs and vaccines and work to bring the newest technologies to even the most remote communities.

Civil society groups and citizens everywhere can advocate, mobilize, and hold policymakers to account.

“Let us act so every expectant mother can get back in her shoes... every child can get a head-start in life... and their daughters and granddaughters can truly step into a better world.” Is it too na├»ve to hope for that?

By Babukar Kashka Republished courtesy of IDN-InDepth NewsAnalysis Photo: WHO

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