Sub-Saharan Africa tops maternal deaths globally

pregnant woman pose for a photo
Pregnant woman pose for a photo Copyright: Image by Polly Guimaraes from Pixabay

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  • Researchers estimated maternal deaths from 2000 to 2017
  • Sub-Saharan Africa had nine of the top ten countries with highest maternal deaths globally
  • Women and adolescent girls should be empowered to seek healthcare

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[NAIROBI] Maternal deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa are almost 50 times higher than in any other region of the world, a UN report has found.

While maternal deaths have fallen globally by more than one third since 2000, huge inequalities remain worldwide, the report said, with Sub-Saharan Africa accounting for two thirds of the worldwide total.

Reducing maternal deaths globally to less than 70 per 100, 000 live births by 2030 is a target of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) three, adopted in 2016 and aims to “ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages”.

The report, which estimates maternal deaths between 2000 and 2017 globally and provides the first available figures since the SDGs came into effect, was released this month (19 September).

“Maternal healthcare is one of the most important investments a country can make to build human capital and boost economic growth.”

Muhammad Ali Pate, World Bank Group

“Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia accounted for approximately 86 per cent (254,000) of the estimated global maternal deaths in 2017, with Sub-Saharan Africa alone accounting for roughly 66 per cent (196 000) while Southern Asia accounted for nearly 20 per cent (58,000),” the report adds.

The report was generated by the WHO, UNICEF, United Nations Population Fund and the World Bank Group using population-based data sources including a WHO database with information on registered deaths of women.

Maternal death is defined by the WHO as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management.

Muhammad Ali Pate, global director for health, nutrition and population at the World Bank Group, says that that although progress has been made in reducing maternal and child deaths, geographical, gender and ethnic inequalities persist.

“Maternal healthcare is one of the most important investments a country can make to build human capital and boost economic growth,” Pate adds.

He calls for support to countries to move speedily towards ensuring that children and women “get the care they need through functional quality primary healthcare systems”.

All three countries that were found to have more than 1,000 deaths per 100,000 live births — considered to be an extremely high mortality rate — in 2017 are in Sub-Saharan Africa: Chad, Sierra Leone and South Sudan.

The region also had 15 of the 16 countries worldwide with very high maternal mortality rates — 500-999 deaths per 100,000 live births — with Haiti being the only country outside Sub-Saharan Africa.

Nine countries in Sub-Saharan Africa made the top ten countries globally that had the highest mortality rates in 2017: Central African Republic, Chad, Guinea Bissau, Liberia, Mauritania, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Somalia and South Sudan.  Afghanistan completed the list.

Only three nations in Sub-Saharan Africa had low maternal mortality rates: Cape Verde, Mauritius, and Seychelles, with each country estimated to record less than 70 deaths per 100,000 live births, the report adds. 

Catherine Kyobutungi, executive director of Kenya-headquartered African Population and Health Research Center, tells SciDev.Net that for Africa to achieve targets of reducing maternal deaths, there is a need to ensure equity in access to needed health services.

“If we know what is wrong, we can change before 2030 so that we are not caught unaware,” she says.

She advocates for use of routine data collected daily at health centres to help track and get timely data annually to inform policy decisions.

Catherine Ngugi, head of Kenya’s National AIDS and Sexually Transmitted Infections Control Programme at the Ministry of Health, says that increasing the number of skilled health workers and ensuring they are accessible to pregnant women and children would help in cutting down maternal deaths.

She calls for parents and governments to empower adolescent mothers and families in need to access quality healthcare.
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.


Maternal mortality: Levels and trends, 2000 to 2017 (WHO, UNICEF, United Nations Population Fund and the World Bank Group, 19 September 2019)