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Study Finds Big Drop in Global Maternal Deaths

The number of women dying from childbirth has dropped dramatically — by about 35 percent — around the world since 1980, according to a new study released Monday by the Lancet.

Maternal deaths fell from more than 526,000 in 1980 to an estimated 342,900 in 2008, according to the analysis, led by researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle. The group analyzed data from 181 countries and found that maternal deaths are still heavily concentrated in a handful of countries.

India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo accounted for half of the maternal deaths in 2008. But India was also part of the select group, including Egypt, Romania, Bangladesh, and China, that substantially decreased their maternal mortality rates in the last 20 years.

The PBS NewsHour looked at how Peru is encouraging more rural women to give birth in medical facilities to reduce deaths in a report last month. Plus, you can watch a NewsHour slideshow on the high maternal mortality rates in Tanzania here and find a Human Rights Watch video on maternal mortality in India here.

In an editorial accompanying the publication, editor Richard Horton said the new figures, “provide robust reason for optimism” and called for continued focus on the issue to reduce maternal deaths even more.

“Two decades of concerted campaigning by those dedicated to maternal health is working. Even greater investment in that work is likely to deliver even greater benefits,” Horton wrote.

But not everyone thinks the study will help the maternal health cause. The New York Times reported Tuesday that the study’s author said there was pressure by some advocates to delay the publication because it would “detract from the urgency of their cause.” Other advocates say the data should be looked at as only one piece of the puzzle.

“On the face of it this would seem to be quite a remarkable change, it’s rare to see a decline like that in any health indicator,” said Adrienne Germain, president of the International Women’s Health Coalition. “But this is one indicator of maternal health, it’s not the only indicator, so to get a better measure we need a wider range of data.”

Germain said serious injury and illness are also factors in maternal health progress, and that the accuracy of data on maternal deaths can vary widely from country to country.

“A lot of [pregnant] women are still dying at home alone, with nobody to record that death,” Germain said.

The study points to several factors that have likely contributed to the improvement in the data, including women having fewer children in their lifetime, as well as increases in income level per person and level of maternal education in some countries. A rise in the number of women giving birth with a skilled attendant is also credited for improving birth outcomes.

Progress overall could have been much greater, the Lancet said, if the HIV epidemic had not contributed to jumps in maternal mortality in eastern and southern Africa. In the absence of HIV, there would have been 281 500 maternal deaths worldwide in 2008, the study concluded.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emphasized the important connection between HIV and maternal health in a speech earlier this year. Clinton stated that one of the goals for the administration’s new Gobal Health Initiative is “integrating family planning, maternal health services, and HIV/AIDS screening and treatment, so that women receiving reproductive care will also receive HIV counseling, and will be referred to an HIV clinic if they need one.”

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