Maternal health conference ends on hopeful note

Posted: 25 October 2007

'Women Deliver', an international conference focusing on maternal and infant mortality, ended on 20 October in London. Twenty years after the launch of the Safe Motherhood Initiative in Kenya, the conference took place amid concerns that Millennium Development Goal Five, which aims to improve maternal health, may not be achieved. The United Nations goal is to reduce maternal mortality by 75 per cent between 1990 and 2015. But since then, more than 500,000 women worldwide have died annually from pregnancy and birth-related complications.

Mother and child, Mali
Mother and child, Mali
Fatoumata, a 15-year-old in Mali, holds her newborn son Moussa. She was 14 when she got married and she has never attended school. Her husband is 27. Photo © Save the Children
The United Nations goal is to reduce maternal mortality by 75 per cent between 1990 and 2015. But since then, more than 500,000 women worldwide have died annually from pregnancy and birth-related complications.

Following a pledge during the conference by the British Government to give £100 million ($204 million) to UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, to achieve universal access for reproductive health, Jill Sheffield of Family Care International was upbeat: "This was a political meeting," she said. "We have governments ready to invest in making that work, we have ministers of finance, planning, local government and health who were here. There is a nucleus from each of 32 countries who came here to work together and go home to work together. And those 32 countries are very high maternal mortality countries."

"Maternal health can be improved through strengthened political commitment and the dedication of increased resources. Life or death is a political decision," said Thoraya Ahmed Obaid, UNFPA Executive Director.

The £100 million over five years was announced by Douglas Alexander, the UK's Secretary of State for International Development. Speaking at the conference, he called on leaders of the world's poorest countries, especially in Africa, to make women's health a priority.

"The death of a mother deprives a child, a family, a community and ultimately a county of one of its most valuable sources of health, happiness and prosperity. Every minute a woman dies from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. More than 10 million women have died in the last 20 years. This is a tragedy but so is the fact these deaths could have been prevented," Alexander told delegates.

An estimated 720,000 unwanted pregnancies could be averted, 300,000 abortions could be prevented and the lives of 1,600 mothers and 22,000 infants could be saved for every £1 million invested in family planning, Alexander said.

Family Planning Education, India© Shehzad Nooran/Still Pictures
Family Planning Education, India© Shehzad Nooran/Still Pictures
Family Planning Education, India. Photo © Shehzad Nooran/Still Pictures

To address this challenge, the UN General Assembly endorsed earlier this month a new target to achieve universal access to reproductive health as part of the Millennium Development Goal 5, which calls for the reduction maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015. Dr Pius Okong is an obstetrician from Uganda. He explained that while the numbers are high in sub-Saharan Africa, maternal mortality is not given the priority it deserves. He said women frequently die in remote parts of the country and their deaths are regarded as due to natural causes.

Dr Okong added that while epidemics such as cholera or ebola provoke an immediate response, maternal mortality does not carry the same weight. Okong said governments and NGOs that are motivated will make the difference.

"If the leaders from Africa who have come here catch the vision, they are passionate about going back to do something then they will do something," he said. "If the people who have certain types of resources whether its technology whether it is money whether its advocacy to help the people in Africa they will make a difference."

Family Care International's Sheffield says even if the millennium goal is not met, it is possible to get close if everyone works hard enough.

"We might not get quite there, we are starting way far behind, but part of the strength of my feeling about this is the recognition that those other Millennium Development Goals are not going to be as successful if we don't reach number five," she added. "Women are absolutely at the heart of our families and our communities, they are also at the heart of the Millennium Development Goals."

Sheffield said the example of Honduras - where the government succeeded in reducing maternal mortality by forty per cent - is proof that political will can tip the balance.