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Pregnancy complications kill half a million women annually, 80% preventable

World Health Day
7 April 2009

Maternal and infant death toll will worsen if health systems are ill-equipped to withstand the economic downturn, UNICEF flagship report urges investment in a continuum of care for mothers and newborns.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2006-2706/Noorani
Reducing maternal mortality is important because women matter.

KUALA LUMPUR, 24 March 2009 – A woman’s pregnancy is typically a period of great joy, the birth of hope and a celebration of a cherished new life.

However, for hundreds of thousands of families living in poverty, both in the poorest countries and the developing world, pregnancy is a silent emergency shrouded in heartbreak and tears, revealed the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) recently in its annual flagship report, The State of the World’s Children.

The 2009 edition, themed “Maternal and Newborn Health”, disclosed that some 500,000 women worldwide die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth each year, while another estimated 20 million suffer pregnancy-related illness after birth. Women in the world’s poorest countries are 300 times more likely to succumb to complications in their pregnancy, while a child born into poverty is almost fourteen times more likely to die in their first month than if they were born in a developed economy.

“It is simply unacceptable that women and infants are denied their right to life because of poverty. At least 80 per cent of these deaths are preventable. Safe motherhood and childhood is an entitlement and right of every woman, every family, every unborn and newborn child regardless of where they live or their household incomes,” stressed UNICEF Representative to Malaysia and Special Representative to Brunei Mr. Youssouf Oomar.

An unrealised Millennium Development Goal

UNICEF’s report spotlights the dismal global progress to meet the target of the fifth Millennium Development Goal which calls for a 75 per cent reduction in maternal deaths from 1990 to 2015. While meeting the goal would have required an annual drop of 5.5 per cent, reported declines are less than one per cent.

“The survival of women in childbirth reflects the overall development of a country and whether or not the health services are functioning,” added Mr. Youssouf. “It is telling when mothers die during pregnancy and childbirth. Behind these deaths is a failure to assure women’s rights: women’s low status and lack of power, poor access to information and care, restricted mobility, early age of marriage, and the low political priority and resources given to their health.”

These factors, combined with a lack of access to family planning services, a shortage of trained health personnel, weak health systems and HIV infection, spell tragedy for young women.

While a woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 7 in Niger, her sisters in some Southeast Asian countries fare somewhat better: 1 in 140 in Philippines, 1 in 500 in Thailand and 1 in 560 in Malaysia. However, even within these countries there are marked disparities in maternal health between the rich and poor, rural and urban as well as vulnerable communities living on the margins of society.

A new threat to women and infants

These disparities are expected to only increase in coming months provoked by an unrelenting financial crisis that has already tipped some 100 million people worldwide back into poverty.

More mothers may die this year than in 2008, say health experts, as the economic downturn derails development gains and jeopardises progress on the challenges that remain. The World Bank and the World Health Organisation recently warned that an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 more children will die every year – between 1.4 and 2.8 million children before 2015 if the current economic crisis persists, without efforts to support and strengthen primary health care.

World Health Day 2009 themed “Save lives, make hospitals safe in emergencies” underscores the importance of investing in health systems that will be able to serve people despite emergencies, including a crisis brought about by an economic downturn.

Cost effective interventions

Reducing maternal mortality is cost effective illustrates UNICEF. To reduce maternal mortality, the report recommends essential services be provided through health systems that integrate a continuum of home, community, outreach and facility-based care.

This continuum of care concept transcends the traditional emphasis on single, disease-specific interventions, calling instead for a model of primary health care that embraces every stage of maternal, newborn and child health. As the health and survival of mothers and their newborns are linked, many of the interventions that save new mothers’ lives will also benefit their infants.

“Improving women’s health is pivotal to fulfilling the rights of girls and women under the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC),” highlighted Mr. Youssouf. “The CRC is clear. Under Article 24, States Parties must ensure appropriate pre-natal and post-natal health care for mothers and to develop preventive health care, guidance for parents and family planning education and services. We cannot allow the financial crisis to undermine twenty years of lessons in realising the rights of the child.”

“Reducing maternal mortality is important because women matter,” affirmed Mr. Youssouf. “A mother’s survival means the survival of her children, communities and nations.”



Additional Quick Facts (Global)

§ Every minute, a woman dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth.

§ Although the number of under-five deaths worldwide has fallen consistently – from around 13 million in 1990 to 9.2 million in 2007 – the toll of maternal mortality has remained stubbornly intractable above 500,000.

§ Africa and Asia account for 95 per cent of the world's maternal deaths, with particularly high burdens in sub-Saharan Africa (50 per cent of the global total) and South Asia (35 per cent).

§ Pregnancy- and childbirth-related complications are an important cause of mortality for girls aged 15–19 years worldwide, accounting for 70,000 deaths every year.

§ For every newborn baby who dies, another 20 suffer birth injury, complications arising from pre-term birth or other neonatal conditions.

About Malaysia’s national health budget 2009
In Malaysia, the Government allocated RM 13.7 billion to the health budget for 2009 to strengthen its health facilities to provide free healthcare for her people. The allocation is an increase of 5.35 per cent from the previous year, and represents two per cent of the GDP. The 2009 Health Budget together with allocations under the country’s two stimuli packages to withstand the stresses of the economic downturn will be used to enhance health facilities and build more hospitals, clinics and quarters, provide equipments as well as increase the supply of medicines. Additionally close to 10,000 nurses will be trained and recruited, while incentive payments will be increased for the flying medical teams in Sabah and Sarawak to serve hard-to-reach communities.


Indra Kumari Nadchatram
(603) 2095 9157 • (+6) 013 366 3452

Shiao Eek, Tee
(603) 2095 9154 • (+6) 012 207 0138

Faradiza Zahri
(603) 2095 9154





SOWC 2009 - Maternal and Newborn Health

State of the World's Children 2009 Report

Video: SOWC 2009


SOWC 2009 - Special Guests Essays

Creating a supportive environment for mothers and newborns
H. M. Queen Rania Al Abdullah of Jordan
Eminent Advocate for Children, UNICEF

Working together for maternal and newborn health
Sarah Brown
Wife of Prime Minister United Kingdom


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