Risk of death in childbirth can be as high as 1 in 7

Pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death and disability for women of reproductive age in developing countries. In Afghanistan, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Somalia, a woman faces a 1-in-7 lifetime risk of dying due to pregnancy or childbirth. But in Spain, Switzerland, Canada and Norway, the risk is 1 in 7,300 or less. 

In 17 countries, women face at least a 1-in-10 chance of dying from pregnancy-related causes sometime during their lives. But in 16 countries the lifetime risk is 1 in 4,000 or less. Complications from pregnancy and childbirth kill about 585,000 women each year. A woman faces that danger each time she becomes pregnant, so the more pregnancies she has, the greater the total risk. Lifetime risk of maternal mortality is based on both the risk of dying from maternal causes and the average number of births. No public health problem shows greater disparity between rich and poor countries than maternal mortality. 

Most obstetric deaths are linked to five causes: haemorrhage, sepsis (blood poisoning), eclampsia (convulsions leading to coma), unsafe abortion and obstructed labour. A number of interventions—improved emergency obstetric care to deal with serious complications, deliveries performed by skilled birth attendants, family planning, iron folate supplements, a rich and varied diet throughout pregnancy and prompt initiation of breastfeeding—vastly improve the odds. 
 
 

Photo:UNICEF/5887-92/Lemoyne
The risk of death in childbirth increases where women lack access to emergency obstetric care. Mother and baby recover from childbirth in a Cambodian hospital.

 
Lifetime risk of maternal death
Highest risk
Afghanistan 1 in 7
Guinea 1 in 7
Sierra Leone 1 in 7
Somalia 1 in 7
Angola 1 in 8
Yemen 1 in 8
Bhutan 1 in 9
Burundi 1 in 9
Chad 1 in 9
Ethiopia 1 in 9
Mozambique 1 in 9
Niger 1 in 9
Rwanda 1 in 9
Eritrea 1 in 10
Mali 1 in 10
Nepal 1 in 10
Uganda 1 in 10
 
Lowest risk
Spain 1 in 9,200
Switzerland 1 in 8,700
Canada 1 in 7,700
Norway 1 in 7,300
Sweden 1 in 6,000
Denmark 1 in 5,800
Austria 1 in 5,600
Greece 1 in 5,600
Italy 1 in 5,300
Belgium 1 in 5,200
UK 1 in 5,100
Australia 1 in 4,900
Singapore 1 in 4,900
Netherlands 1 in 4,300
Finland 1 in 4,200
Slovenia 1 in 4,000
 
 
Regional risk
Sub-Saharan Africa 1 in 13
Central Asia* 1 in 35
Middle East & North Africa 1 in 60
East/South Asia & Pacific 1 in 70
Americas 1 in 215
Europe 1 in 1,400
Developing countries 1 in 50
World 1 in 60
 
 
* Figure influenced by high rates of fertility and maternal mortality in Afghanistan. If Afghanistan is excluded, lifetime risk of maternal death in Central Asia is 1 in 330. 
Source: WHO and UNICEF, Revised 1990 Estimates of Maternal Mortality, A New Approach by WHO and UNICEF, April 1996.  
 
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