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Tuesday, November 2, 1999 Published at 08:31 GMT


Drive to cut maternal deaths

Many deaths could have been saved by preventive measures

By BBC Science's Helen Briggs

A campaign to try to cut the number of deaths of women from complications during pregnancy and childbirth has been launched by United Nations agencies and the World Bank.

The World Health Organisation says most of the 600,000 women who die in such circumstances could have been saved by preventive measures and better health care.

The current death rate means that every minute one woman somewhere in the world dies because of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.

They include bleeding during labour, high blood pressure and infections. Ninety-eight per cent of the deaths occur in the world's poorest countries.

Maternal death rates in Afghanistan and Sierra Leone are among the highest, according to the UN.

Plan of attack

The new campaign, supported by the WHO, UNICEF, the UN Population Fund and the World Bank, has outlined three key areas for action:

  • Training more midwives
  • Preventing unwanted pregnancies
  • Improving nutrition
Midwives are a priority in the developing world, where more than half of women give birth at home, often without any help from health professionals.

The campaign aims to prevent unwanted pregnancies by offering family planning services and counselling.

And improving nutrition is important as it has been shown that the children of well-nourished mothers are likely to have better health.

Serious consequences

"We need to acknowledge that maternal mortality has remained a neglected issue compared with, say, infant mortality," a spokesman for the WHO said.

"Many countries have long-established maternal and child health programmes but what we often see in practice is that there is rather more attention to the child health component than to maternal health in these programmes."

Improvement was urgently needed because of the scale of the problem.

"It is important to remember that these are women in the prime of life, and that they often leave behind them other children and family members who are dependent on them," he said.

"The economic and social costs of unsafe motherhood are, therefore, serious."


The WHO is participating in the initiative as part of its drive to improve reproductive health in the developing world.

Dr Gro Harlem Brundtland, director general of the organisation, said: "Reproductive health deals with intimate and highly valued aspects of our lives.

"Our organisation is committed to the concept of reproductive health, which is and will continue to be our key priority for the new century."

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