Study: Maternal Death Rate Has Declined

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In New York's bustling Times Square, members of Amnesty International hung a clock Monday that would count to 90 seconds and then start over again. Each time the clock finished a cycle, a woman somewhere in the world had died of complications during pregnancy or childbirth, reminding passersby that maternal mortality still presents a pervasive human rights problem.

But according to a study by UC Berkeley researchers released Sept. 15 by the World Health Organization and other international organizations, the maternal mortality ratio - the number of maternal deaths compared to the number of live births - has decreased by 34 percent since 1990.

The study - and Amnesty International's Maternal Death Clock - was in preparation for a United Nations summit Sept. 20 to Sept. 22, where world leaders discussed the progress of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, which aim to significantly decrease world poverty by 2015. The goal to reduce the maternal mortality ratio by 75 percent has nearly been half met.

John Wilmoth, an associate professor of demography at UC Berkeley and lead consultant in the project, developed a method for estimating the maternity death toll that is more conducive to reporting long-term trends instead of simply providing statistics for a specific year.

"We created a statistical model, which allows us to predict the level of maternal mortality based on co-variables that tend to go up and down with maternal mortality," he said.

Wilmoth and his team, which included three UC Berkeley graduate students from the demography department, gathered government data from the countries that collected maternal mortality numbers. For the rest of the 172 countries surveyed in the study, mostly the undeveloped nations where there was either incomplete or no information, Wilmoth said predictive statistical models were necessary.

Income, for example, has such a predictive power. When the per-capita income of a region increases, women are more able to afford midwives or hospital care, safe abortions, contraceptives or even a small pill for five cents that prevents and treats hemorrhages.

Progress has occurred to some extent in North Africa and Asia, where the decrease in the ratio has been above 4 percent a year, almost meeting the annual 5.5 percent improvement rate necessary to meet the U.N. goal.

Other regions have not fared as well. Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest maternal mortality ratio at 640 deaths per 100,000 live births and has only improved by 1.7 percent annually since 1990.

"The tragedy, I think, is that the world is divided into two groups. There are about 45 or 50 million women who do not have a skilled birth attendant," said Malcolm Potts, a professor in the School of Public Health. "The mortality rates have gone down in many places, and I think that's wonderful. We're not giving women enough care, but we're giving them more than we used to."


Claire Perlman covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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