Global Maternal Deaths Decreased By More Than 35% Between 1980 And 2008, Study Finds

The number of maternal deaths around the world has decreased from more than 500,000 in 1980 to an estimated 342,900 in 2008, according to a Lancet study published online on Monday, the BBC reports. For the study, “a team led by the University of Washington in Seattle, looked at data from thousands of observations of maternal deaths for 181 countries between 1980 and 2008. … More than half of all maternal deaths were in only six countries in 2008 – India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” writes the BBC (Briggs, 4/12).

To obtain the results, researchers “used new analytical methods on the latest data to come up with their findings for 181 countries,” the Wall Street Journal’s “Health Blog” writes. They also noted the impact of HIV, “without the disease, the number of maternal deaths world-wide would have been 281,500 in 2008, the study said,” the blog reports (White, 4/12). Put another way, Reuters writes: “Nearly one out of every five maternal deaths or a total of 61,400 in 2008, were associated with AIDS infections” (Fox, 4/12).

The study findings indicate that developing countries “have made substantial progress toward the Millennium Development Goal” of reducing the global maternal mortality rate [MMR], according to a University of Washington press release. “Although only 23 countries are on track to achieve the target of lowering the MMR by 75 percent between 1990 and 2015, countries such as Egypt, China, Ecuador, and Bolivia have been achieving accelerated progress,” the press release notes. Meanwhile, MMR increased in eight low-income countries, including Afghanistan and Zimbabwe, between 1990 and 2008. Several high-income countries, including Canada and the U.S., were also found to have increases in their MMRs, which is partly the result of changes in the reporting of maternal deaths (4/11). Overall, women “dying from pregnancy-related causes has dropped by more than 35 percent globally in the past 30 years,” Reuters reports.

Study co-author Christopher Murray of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, said, “These findings are very encouraging and quite surprising. There are still too many mothers dying worldwide, but now we have a greater reason for optimism than has generally been perceived.” Reuters writes that the study findings “contradict work done by the World Health Organization, which reported last May that mothers and newborns are no more likely to survive now than 20 years ago” (4/12).

The press release adds: “Maternal mortality is better documented than deaths from HIV, tuberculosis, and other causes, the researchers found” (4/11). Murray said, “Finding out why a country such as Egypt has had such enormous success in driving down the number of women dying from pregnancy-related causes could enable us to export that success to countries that have been lagging behind,” Reuters reports. The study was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (4/12).

A related Lancet editorial said, the trend “for the first time in a generation, is one of persistent and welcome progress,” according to the Wall Street Journal blog. “[T]he editorial also notes that there are ‘wide uncertainty intervals around these numbers’ in the study,” the blog writes (4/12). The study shows “that programmes to reduce fertility rates, increase individual incomes, expand maternal education, and widen access to skilled birth attendants are having a measurable effect – saving the lives of women during pregnancy,” according to the editorial, which writes that “greater investment in that work is likely to deliver even greater benefits” (Horton, 4/12).

The KFF Daily Global Health Policy Report summarized news and information on global health policy from hundreds of sources, from May 2009 through December 2020. All summaries are archived and available via search.

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