Health and Healthcare Systems

Progress to prevent mother and baby deaths is stalling – this is why

Mother and child holding hands.

Since 2015, there has been a lack of progress in reducing mother and baby deaths. Image: Unsplash/Aditya Romansa

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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  • Progress on reducing mother and baby deaths has stalled since 2015, according to a new World Health Organization report.
  • Each year, 4.5 million mothers and babies die in pregnancy, childbirth or the first few weeks of life.
  • The World Economic Forum’s Global Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook sets out a vision to transform healthcare systems by 2035.

Progress in reducing maternal and newborn deaths worldwide has come to a standstill since 2015.

Globally, 4.5 million women and babies die during pregnancy, childbirth or the first weeks after birth each year, a new report from the United Nations shows. That’s the equivalent of one every seven seconds – and most of these deaths are from preventable or treatable causes if proper care had been available.

The COVID-19 pandemic, rising poverty, and worsening humanitarian crises have put immense pressure on maternity and newborn health services, the report says, exacerbating an already dire situation.

Each year there are around 290,000 maternal deaths, 1.9 million stillbirths, and 2.3 million newborn deaths. And there has been little progress on improving survival rates since 2015.

Table displaying the countries with the largest numbers of deaths, in 2020.
Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia have the worst newborn and maternal mortality rates. Image: WHO

Falling short of SDG targets

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa report declining funds for maternal and newborn health. And just a tenth of countries estimate they have sufficient funds to implement their current plans.

The worst-affected countries are found in sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia. In these areas, fewer than 60% of women receive even half the number of antenatal checks recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Based on the current trajectory, over 60 countries will miss the 2030 maternal, newborn and stillborn mortality reduction targets in the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“The death of any woman or young girl during pregnancy or childbirth is a serious violation of their human rights,” says Dr Julitta Onabanjo, Director of the Technical Division at the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA).

“It also reflects the urgent need to scale-up access to quality sexual and reproductive health services as part of universal health coverage and primary health care… and it is vital that we stamp out the underlying factors which give rise to poor maternal health outcomes like socio-economic inequalities, discrimination, poverty and injustice".

Graphs displaying the average annual rate of reduction to meet global targets.
Meeting global targets could save millions of women’s and babies’ lives. Image: WHO
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Dr Onabanjo’s remarks are underlined by recent data which shows that under two-thirds of women aged 15-49 years make their own decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Born too soon

One in 10 babies are born before 37 weeks of gestation – a rate that hasn’t changed in the past decade, and in some cases is rising. An estimated 1 million newborns died in 2020 because of complications relating to preterm birth, separate research from the WHO shows. Millions more survive with disabilities.

Infographic illustrating the neonatal disorders: the leading cause of burden of disease, 1990 and 2019.
Neonatal disorders are the leading disease burden globally. Image: WHO

Preterm birth accounts for over a third of neonatal deaths, and is the single largest cause of death in the under-fives. Neonatal conditions meanwhile are the leading cause of lost human capital, unchanged since 1990.

A healthcare system fit for the future

“It’s unfortunate that, in this day and age, close to 4.5 million women and children die of mostly preventable diseases in sub-Saharan and low-income countries,” said Shyam Bishen, Head, Centre for Health & Healthcare and member of the executive committee at the World Economic Forum. Bishen stresses the need to increase financing and commitments from public and private partners to support maternal health.

“We must pay attention to this issue of maternal health equity and prevent such mother and newborn child death by investing in and strengthening the maternity health services in these high-burden countries.”

The WHO estimates that a quarter of health services continue to be disrupted after the pandemic, based on data up to January 2023. By the end of 2022, most countries were reporting partial signs of recovery, including in services for sexual, reproductive, maternal and newborn health, it says.

The World Economic Forum’s Global Health and Healthcare Strategic Outlook sets out a vision to transform healthcare and create more sustainable and resilient systems by 2035. Its approach is based on four strategic pillars of equitable access and outcomes, healthcare systems transformation, technology and innovation, and environmental sustainability, with equity as the foundational goal.

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