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Improving Maternal Health Worldwide

Authors: Isobel Coleman, Senior Fellow and Director of the Civil Society, Markets, and Democracy Initiative; Director of the Women and Foreign Policy Program, and Laurie Garrett, Senior Fellow for Global Health
May 21, 2008
The Hill

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The House this week took up H.Res. 1022, "Reducing Maternal Mortality Both at Home and Abroad." The next step is to pass legislation that shows real resolve, with money and legislated programs behind it.

Every year, 536,000 women die during childbirth, and an additional 8 million become severely disabled. The death toll doesn't end with the mothers: 5 percent of all newborns die after their mother's death, and millions of other children are left orphaned.

There was a time—in our great-grandmothers' days—when American women seemed doomed to die in childbirth, after having five or six children. Our maternal death rates came down for three simple reasons: Women over the generations have had smaller, healthier families; when women go into potentially fatal labors there are hospitals throughout the country capable of providing emergency help; and healthcare workers wash their hands with soap, observing infection control procedures. This isn't rocket science.

Tragically, these simple solutions are nonexistent for hundreds of millions of mothers in 2008, especially those who are part of the so-called "bottom billion"—the citizens of the poorest countries in the world. Nearly nine out of 10 childbirth-related deaths today occur in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Maternal death and disability account for nearly 20 percent of the total disease burden for young women in these countries. Overall, in sub-Saharan Africa, women have a 1-in-16 risk of dying from pregnancy, whereas women in developed countries have a 1-in-1,800 lifetime risk.

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