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UN: Over 4.5 Million Women, Newborns Die From Preventable Causes Every Year

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Geneva — A report by leading United Nations agencies says global progress in reducing maternal and newborn deaths has stalled for nearly a decade largely due to underinvestment in providing the health care.

The report shows more than 4.5 million women and babies die every year in pregnancy, childbirth or the first weeks after birth — equivalent to one death every seven seconds — “mostly from preventable or treatable causes if proper care was available.”

Allisyn Moran, unit head for maternal health at the World Health Organization, said all the deaths have similar risk factors and causes.

While the trends pre-date the coronavirus pandemic, she said “COVID-19-related service disruptions and funding diversions, rising poverty and worsening humanitarian crises are intensifying pressures on already overstretched maternity and newborn health services.”

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Since 2018, the report finds, more than three-quarters of all conflict-affected and sub-Saharan African countries report funding for maternal and newborn health has declined and that only one in 10 of more than 100 countries surveyed reported they had the money needed to implement their current plans.

Speaking in Cape Town, South Africa, the site of a major global conference on maternal health, Moran said that a lack of investment in primary health care risked lowering survival prospects.

“For instance, while prematurity is now the leading cause of all under-5 deaths globally, less than a third of countries report having sufficient newborn care units to treat small and sick babies,” she said. “Two-thirds of emergency childbirth facilities in sub-Saharan Africa lack essential resources like medicines and supplies, water, electricity or staffing for 24-hour care.”

Steven Lauwerier, UNICEF director of health, agreed with that assessment. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, he said “babies, children, and women who were already exposed to threats to their well-being, especially those living in fragile countries and emergencies, are facing the heaviest consequences of decreased spending and efforts on providing quality and accessible healthcare.”

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The report, “Improving Maternal and Newborn Health and Survival and Reducing Stillbirth,” found that in sub-Saharan Africa and central and southern Asia, the regions with the greatest number of newborn and maternal deaths, fewer than 60 percent of women receive even four of the WHO’s recommended eight prenatal checks.

“The death of any woman or young girl during pregnancy or childbirth is a serious violation of their human rights,” said Julitta Onabanjo, director of the technical division at the U.N. Population Fund. “It also reflects the urgent need to scale-up access to quality sexual and reproductive health services as part of universal health coverage and primary health care, especially in communities where maternal mortality rates have stagnated or even risen during recent years.”

The authors of the report agree that women and babies must have quality, affordable health care before, during and after childbirth, as well as access to family planning services to increase survival rates.

They add that “more skilled and motivated health workers, especially midwives, are needed, alongside essential medicine and supplies, safe water, and reliable electricity.”

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The stated aim of health leaders from over 30 countries attending the week-long conference is to develop plans that accelerate progress where it is most needed.

Anshu Banerjee, the WHO director of maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health and aging, is in no doubt as to where that is. “Pregnant women and newborns continue to die at unacceptably high rates worldwide,” he said, “and the COVID-19 pandemic has created further setbacks to providing them with the healthcare they need.”

“If we wish to see different results, we must do things differently,” he said. “More and smarter investments in primary health care are needed now so that every woman and baby — no matter where they live — has the best chance of health and survival.”

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