The world is currently experiencing a serious and concerning crisis of maternal and newborn mortality, with over 4.5 million women and infants dying each year during pregnancy, childbirth, or the initial weeks after birth. This equates to one death occurring every 7 seconds, primarily due to preventable or treatable causes if adequate care was accessible.
According to a new report from the United Nations (UN), global progress in reducing these deaths has stalled since 2015, due to decreasing investments in maternal and newborn health, as well as the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, rising poverty, and worsening humanitarian crises.
The report, Improving maternal and newborn health and survival and reducing stillbirth, shows that in 2021, there were around 290,000 maternal deaths, 1.9 million stillbirths, and 2.3 million newborn deaths.
The report also reveals significant racial and geographic disparities in maternal and newborn mortality. In 2021, the maternal death rate for Black women was 69.9 deaths per 100,000 live births, which is 2.6 times higher than the rate for White women, at 26.6 per 100,000. The highest rates of maternal and newborn mortality were found in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, where access to quality health care is often limited or unavailable.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the situation by disrupting essential health services, such as antenatal care, skilled birth attendance, emergency obstetric care, postnatal care, and immunization. According to a WHO survey, around a quarter of countries still report ongoing disruptions to these services due to lockdowns, travel restrictions, staff shortages, supply chain issues, and fear of infection.
“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,” said Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at the World Health Organization (WHO).
“If we wish to see different results, we must do things differently. More and smarter investments in primary healthcare are needed now so that every woman and baby – no matter where they live – has the best chance of health and survival.”
The report calls for urgent action from governments, donors, civil society, private sector, and communities to increase funding and political commitment for maternal and newborn health; strengthen health systems and ensure universal health coverage; improve quality of care and accountability; address social determinants of health and equity; and accelerate innovation and research.
The report also highlights some of the best practices and success stories from countries that have made significant progress in reducing maternal and newborn mortality, such as Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Nepal, Rwanda, Sri Lanka, Cambodia, China, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia.
“These countries have shown that it is possible to save millions of lives with concerted efforts and investments in maternal and newborn health,” said Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF Director of Health(a.i.).
“We must learn from their experiences and scale up proven interventions that can make a difference for every woman and baby.”