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New figures showing that maternal deaths are down provide valuable lessons towards meeting the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) to improve maternal health, says The Lancet editor, Richard Horton.

A new analysis published in The Lancet shows that maternal deaths have fallen by nearly a third from 526,300 in 1980 to 342,900 in 2008 — proof that two decades of resolute campaigning for maternal health is actually working, says Horton.

But this is no time for complacency. The data should act "as a catalyst, not a brake, for accelerated action, ... including scaled-up resource commitments", writes Horton.

Programmes to reduce fertility rates, boost incomes, develop maternal education and improve access to trained birth attendants are "having a measurable effect". Increasing support to these will likely deliver even greater benefits.

The new data will not be immune to controversy. For example, Horton reveals that his journal was asked to delay publication of the study to avoid political damage to maternal advocacy efforts.

Debate will also likely rise within the global health measurement community because the levels of uncertainty in the new data are high. Policymakers must now prioritise understanding the different approaches to measuring maternal mortality.

They must also discuss the latest figures and their implications for research and policy at a national and global level. Horton suggests that UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-moon, should convene a high-level, intergovernmental MDG preparatory meeting to "bring the best available data to bear on formulating [maternal health] policies to launch in September".

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