Decreasing investment in maternal and newborn health has stalled global progress in reducing deaths of pregnant women, mothers and babies since 2015. According to a new by the United Nations over 4.5 million women and babies die every year during pregnancy, childbirth or the first weeks after birth. This is equivalent to 1 death happening every 7 seconds. And the deaths are mostly from preventable or treatable causes.

Pregnant women and newborns continue to die at unacceptably high rates worldwide, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created further setbacks to providing them with the healthcare they need,” says Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organisation (WHO). “More and smarter investments in primary healthcare are needed now to give every woman and baby — no matter where they live — the best chance of health and survival.”

Staggering number of maternal and newborn deaths

The report, Improving Maternal and Newborn Health and Survival and Reducing Stillbirth, found that since 2015, there have been around 290 000 maternal deaths each year and 1.9 million stillbirths -– babies who die after 28 weeks of pregnancy. It also recorded 2.3 million newborn deaths, which are deaths in the first month of life. The report was released in Cape Town at the International Maternal Newborn Health Conference. 

Stretched health systems are under intense pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rising poverty, and worsening humanitarian crises. Since 2018, more than three-quarters of all conflict-affected and Sub-Saharan African countries report declining funding for maternal and newborn health. Just one in 10 countries (of more than 100 surveyed) report having sufficient funds to implement their current plans. According to the latest WHO survey on the pandemic’s impacts on essential health services, around a quarter of countries still report ongoing disruptions to vital pregnancy and postnatal care and services for sick children.

Sub-Saharan Africa failing on maternal and newborn health

Around two-thirds of emergency childbirth facilities in sub-Saharan Africa are not fully functional as they lack essential resources like medicines, water, electricity or staffing for 24-hour care.

In the worst-affected countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia -– the regions with the greatest burden of newborn and maternal deaths — fewer than 60% of women receive even four, of WHO’s recommended eight, antenatal checks.

“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.

Address harmful gender norms

Onabanjo says a human rights and gender transformative approach will help address maternal and newborn mortality. “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”.

Improving maternal and newborn health further requires addressing harmful gender norms, biases and inequalities. Recent data show that only about 60% of women aged 15-49 years make their own decisions regarding sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Based on current trends, more than 60 countries will not meet the maternal, newborn and stillborn mortality reduction targets in the UN Sustainable Development Goals by 2030. – Health-e News