In September, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that fewer women die each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth than previously estimated, but efforts to sharply cut maternal mortality by 2015 are still off track. A new report found that 358,000 women died during pregnancy or childbirth in 2008, mostly in poor countries of sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. While the number of deaths is disturbing enough, it is estimated that an additional 15-20 million women suffer debilitating consequences of pregnancy.

Despite the challenges faced in reducing maternal mortality, USAID has helped to demonstrate that real progress can be made.  Our work proved that many of the major causes of maternal death are substantially preventable and treatable with low-cost interventions.  USAID has sharpened its focus on a set of effective interventions targeting high-mortality complications of pregnancy and birth – hemorrhage, hypertension, infections, anemia, and prolonged labor.  Together, these complications account for two-thirds of maternal mortality.  Hemorrhage alone accounts for almost one-third, and USAID has been in the forefront of promoting “active management of the third stage of labor (AMTSL),” a highly-effective technique for preventing postpartum hemorrhage.

The active management of the third stage of labor is a combination of actions to speed the delivery of the placenta and prevent up to 60% of postpartum hemorrhage cases. Through these simple actions, trained providers can prevent postpartum hemorrhage and play a vital role in saving women’s lives.

Spreading best practices like AMSTL are critical to saving lives of women and improving health around the world.  The U.S. Global Health Initiative has set ambitious targets like a 30% decrease in maternal mortality in assisted countries, with a priority on supporting innovation and sharing best practices, as well as building up the health systems that deliver these interventions.

A nationally representative facility-based delivery survey funded by USAID and conducted in 10 countries found limited use of AMTSL in only 0.5 to 32 percent of observed deliveries, and revealed multiple deficiencies in practice. These surveys helped to identify barriers and served as important catalysts to action. With the evidence and this data, USAID has worked with professional societies, researchers, UN agencies, NGOs and the private sector to safely and effectively introduce and expand AMTSL use in at least 40 high-mortality countries.

USAID supported efforts have led to policy changes in 16 countries in Asia, sub-Saharan Africa and South America. The Agency and its partners also contributed to the development and dissemination of the 2007 WHO recommendations for the Prevention of Postpartum Hemorrhage providing a clear global policy on the correct application of AMSTL and the 2009 WHO guidelines for the management of PPH and retained placenta. The strength of multiple implementation strategies—policy change, systems strengthening, social mobilization, technology development, and research— has yielded many valuable lessons about opportunities, challenges, and strategies for scaling up AMTSL.  A key lesson we have learned is that, when there is political commitment, AMTSL is rapidly scalable.

But USAID asks hard questions and supports the renewed attention to the programmatic implementation of this approach.  With that in mind, USAID is supporting a WHO-led study on the impact of eliminating the most complicated element- of AMSTL, controlled cord traction. If this study has positive results, a simplified AMTSL regimen would significantly reduce the complexity of training and AMTSL practice in health facilities and in the community.

Community-based strategies for preventing PPH are also important since between 40-50% of births occur at home.  USAID has piloted community-based distribution of misoprostol and  use of the Uniject® device prefilled with oxytocin, to address these needs.   Misoprostol is an effective uterotonic to prevent postpartum bleeding; unlike oxytocin, it can be administered orally and does not require refrigeration. USAID-supported studies in Nepal, Afghanistan, and Senegal have shown the feasibility of community-based distribution of misoprostol, indicating that the drug should be considered when oxytocin is not available at the community level. In Nepal, where 82 percent of women do not give birth in health facilities, a USAID-supported study showed that it is feasible to achieve high-population coverage of misoprostol through trained community health volunteers under the Government primary health care system and still have increased use of facility births due to the education provided to women/ families through the program.  USAID’s partnerships in Nepal contributed to a change in national policy and the pilot study has now become the Nepal government’s national program.  With support from multiple partners, the program is now being scaled up throughout the country.  Pilot projects or studies on oxytocin in Uniject in Mali proved that a 6-month trained birth attendant (matron) could provide oxytocin as safely as the midwives or physicians.  Mali has also changed its policy to allow matrons to use oxytocin and practice AMTSL.

Maternal mortality is still unacceptably high.  Together, we need to seize the momentum and enhance family planning and maternal health programs to quickly reduce the still unacceptably high toll of preventable maternal deaths. Secretary Clinton challenged USAID to build on existing global health programs and create lasting change. We have made great strides with previous investments, but as she noted, in many places a woman might be treated for HIV but die in childbirth.  This is not acceptable.