Submitted by Susan K. Brems Ph.D. Senior Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Global Health

The World Health Organization said Wednesday that fewer women are now dying each year from complications during pregnancy and childbirth.  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. This represents a 34 percent decline from previous international estimates of greater than 500,000 maternal deaths annually.

USAID welcomed the publication of the WHO,  the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and the World Bank.   USAID has been one of the largest donors with sustained investments and programming in both maternal health and family planning.

The Inter-agency methodology estimates 358,000 maternal deaths each year worldwide, close to the 343,000 deaths estimated by the Hogan et al. Institute for Health Metrics (IHME) published in the Lancet in April 2010.  Inter-agency methodology uses nationally representative data and was developed and refined by worldwide experts from UN agencies and major universities in North America and Europe.

The Inter-Agency and IHME estimates of worldwide decline in maternal mortality support USAID’s earlier analyses of DHS data that have shown declines in many countries where governments and donors, including USAID, have had continuous, focused programming on improving health systems that affect maternal care, as well as delivery of high-impact interventions, including family planning and safe delivery care, to prevent and treat the major causes of maternal mortality.

Maternal mortality is still unacceptably high. All partners 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 Secretary Clinton noted, in many places a woman might be treated for HIV but die in childbirth.

With just five years left to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), recent progress presents us with a historic opportunity to achieve lasting reductions in maternal and under-five deaths.