15 January 2009Having a child remains one of the biggest health risks for women worldwide, and this is especially true for women in least developed countries who are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than women in developed countries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in a new report released today. Having a child remains one of the biggest health risks for women worldwide, and this is especially true for women in least developed countries who are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than women in developed countries, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) said in a new report released today. The 2009 edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication – “The State of the World’s Children” – adds that a child born in a developing country is almost 14 times more likely to die during the first month of life than a child born in a developed one. “The divide between the industrialized countries and developing regions, particularly the least developed countries, is perhaps greater on maternal mortality than on almost any other issue,” the report states. For example, a woman in Niger has a one in seven chance of dying during the course of her lifetime from complications during pregnancy or delivery, compared to the risk faced by mothers in the United States, where it’s one in 4,800 or in Ireland, where it’s just one in 48,000. Following close behind Niger in terms of the highest lifetime risk of maternal death are Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Chad, Angola, Liberia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau and Mali. The agency notes that both mothers and infants are vulnerable in the days and weeks after birth – a critical time for lifesaving interventions, such as post-natal visits, proper hygiene, and counseling about the danger signs of maternal and newborn health. While many developing countries have made excellent progress improving their child survival rate in recent years, there has been less headway in reducing maternal mortality. Niger and Malawi, for example, nearly cut their under-five death rates in half between 1990 and 2007. In Indonesia, under-five death rates fell to nearly a third of what they were in 1990, and in Bangladesh they fell by more than a half. The same progress, however, has not been made in addressing health risks for mothers, who are most vulnerable during delivery and in the first days after birth. And while the rate of survival for children under five years of age is improving globally, the risks faced by infants in the first 28 days remain at “unacceptably high levels” in many countries. Launching the report in Johannesburg, UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman noted that more than half a million women die every year as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, including about 70,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 19. “Since 1990, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth have killed an estimated 10 million women,” she added. To lower the risks for pregnant women and newborns, the report recommends the provision of essential services that include a continuum of care at critical points – adolescence, pre-pregnancy, pregnancy, birth, post-natal and neonatal periods, infancy and childhood – as well as at key locations where they can be readily accessed by women and children. It adds that health services are most effective in an environment supportive of women’s empowerment, protection, and education. “Saving the lives of mothers and their newborns requires more than just medical intervention,” noted Ms. Veneman. “Educating girls is pivotal to improving maternal and neonatal health and also benefits families and societies.” Welcoming the new report, the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) called for more action to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015, which is the target date for achieving the globally agreed anti-poverty objectives known as the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).“We look forward to continued cooperation with UNICEF and other partners to improve maternal and newborn health,” said UNFPA Executive Director Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, adding that “no woman should die giving life.” UNFPA noted that most maternal deaths could be prevented through universal access to reproductive health. In this regard, health systems need to be strengthened to provide family planning, skilled attendance at birth and emergency obstetric care.