Maternal death is defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as "the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination of pregnancy, irrespective of the duration and site of the pregnancy, from any cause related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management but not from accidental or incidental causes."
There are two performance indicators that are sometimes used interchangeably: maternal mortality ratio and maternal mortality rate, which confusingly both are abbreviated "MMR". The world maternal mortality rate has declined 44% since 1990, but still every day 830 women die from pregnancy or childbirth related causes. According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) this is equivalent to "about one woman every two minutes and for every woman who dies, 20 or 30 encounter complications with serious or long-lasting consequences. Most of these deaths and injuries are entirely preventable."
UNFPA estimated that 289,000 women died of pregnancy or childbirth related causes in 2013. These causes range from severe bleeding to obstructed labour, all of which have highly effective interventions. As women have gained access to family planning and skilled birth attendance with backup emergency obstetric care, the global maternal mortality ratio has fallen from 380 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990 to 210 deaths per 100,000 live births in 2013, and many countries halved their maternal death rates in the last 10 years.
Worldwide mortality rates have been decreasing in modern age. High rates still exist, particularly in impoverished communities with over 85% living in Africa and Southern Asia. The effect of a mother's death results in vulnerable families and their infants, if they survive childbirth, are more likely to die before reaching their second birthday.
Factors that increase maternal death can be direct or indirect. Generally, there is a distinction between a direct maternal death that is the result of a complication of the pregnancy, delivery, or management of the two, and an indirect maternal death. that is a pregnancy-related death in a patient with a preexisting or newly developed health problem unrelated to pregnancy. Fatalities during but unrelated to a pregnancy are termed accidental, incidental, or nonobstetrical maternal deaths.
The most common causes are postpartum bleeding (15%), complications from unsafe abortion (15%), hypertensive disorders of pregnancy (10%), postpartum infections (8%), and obstructed labour (6%). Other causes include blood clots (3%) and pre-existing conditions (28%). Indirect causes are malaria, anaemia, HIV/AIDS, and cardiovascular disease, all of which may complicate pregnancy or be aggravated by it.
Sociodemographic factors such as age, access to resources and income level are significant indicators of maternal outcomes. Young mothers face higher risks of complications and death during pregnancy than older mothers, especially adolescents aged 15 years or younger. Adolescents have higher risks for postpartum hemorrhage, puerperal endometritis, operative vaginal delivery, episiotomy, low birth weight, preterm delivery, and small-for-gestational-age infants, all of which can lead to maternal death. Structural support and family support influences maternal outcomes. Furthermore, social disadvantage and social isolation adversely affects maternal health which can lead to increases in maternal death. Additionally, lack of access to skilled medical care during childbirth, the travel distance to the nearest clinic to receive proper care, number of prior births, barriers to accessing prenatal medical care and poor infrastructure all increase maternal deaths.
Unsafe abortion is another major cause of maternal death. According to the World Health Organization, every eight minutes a woman dies from complications arising from unsafe abortions. Complications include hemorrhage, infection, sepsis and genital trauma. Globally, preventable deaths from improperly performed procedures constitute 13% of maternal mortality, and 25% or more in some countries where maternal mortality from other causes is relatively low, making unsafe abortion the leading single cause of maternal mortality worldwide.
The four measures of maternal death are the maternal mortality ratio (MMR), maternal mortality rate, lifetime risk of maternal death and proportion of maternal deaths among deaths of women of reproductive years (PM).
Maternal mortality ratio (MMR): the ratio of the number of maternal deaths during a given time period per 100,000 live births during the same time-period. The MMR is used as a measure of the quality of a health care system.
Maternal mortality rate (MMRate): the number of maternal deaths in a population divided by the number of women of reproductive age, usually expressed per 1,000 women.
Lifetime risk of maternal death: refers to the probability that a 15-year-old female will die eventually from a maternal cause if she experiences throughout her lifetime the risks of maternal death and the overall levels of fertility and mortality that are observed for a given population. The adult lifetime risk of maternal mortality can be derived using either the maternal mortality ratio (MMR), or the maternal mortality rate (MMRate).
Proportion of maternal deaths among deaths of women of reproductive age (PM): the number of maternal deaths in a given time period divided by the total deaths among women aged 15–49 years.
Approaches to measuring maternal mortality includes civil registration system, household surveys, census, reproductive age mortality studies (RAMOS) and verbal autopsies.
According to the 2010 United Nations Population Fund report, developing nations account for ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths with the majority of those deaths occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia. Globally, high and middle income countries experience lower maternal deaths than low income countries. The Human Development Index (HDI) accounts for between 82 and 85 percent of the maternal mortality rates among countries. In most cases, high rates of maternal deaths occur in the same countries that have high rates of infant mortality. These trends are a reflection that higher income countries have stronger healthcare infrastructure, medical and healthcare personnel, use more advanced medical technologies and have fewer barriers to accessing care than low income countries. Therefore, in low income countries, the most common cause of maternal death is obstetrical hemorrhage, followed by hypertensive disorders of pregnancy, in contrast to high income countries, for which the most common cause is thromboembolism.
At a country level, India (19% or 56,000) and Nigeria (14% or 40,000) accounted for roughly one third of the maternal deaths in 2010. Democratic Republic of the Congo, Pakistan, Sudan, Indonesia, Ethiopia, United Republic of Tanzania, Bangladesh and Afghanistan comprised between 3 and 5 percent of maternal deaths each. These ten countries combined accounted for 60% of all the maternal deaths in 2010 according to the United Nations Population Fund report. Countries with the lowest maternal deaths were Estonia, Greece and Singapore.
In the United States, the maternal death rate averaged 9.1 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births during the years 1979–1986, but then rose rapidly to 14 per 100,000 in 2000 and 17.8 per 100,000 in 2009. In 2013 the rate was 18.5 deaths per 100,000 live births, with some 800 maternal deaths reported.
There are significant maternal mortality intracountry variations, especially in nations with large equality gaps in income and education and high healthcare disparities. Women living in rural areas experience higher maternal mortality than women living in urban and sub-urban centers because those living in wealthier households, having higher education, or living in urban areas, have higher use of healthcare services than their poorer, less-educated, or rural counterparts. There are also racial and ethnic disparities in maternal health outcomes which increases maternal mortality in marginalized groups.
The death rate for women giving birth plummeted in the twentieth century. The historical level of maternal deaths is probably around 1 in 100 births. Mortality rates reached very high levels in maternity institutions in the 1800s, sometimes climbing to 40 percent of patients (see Historical mortality rates of puerperal fever). At the beginning of the 1900s, maternal death rates were around 1 in 100 for live births. Currently, there are an estimated 275,000 maternal deaths each year. Public health, technological and policy approaches are steps that can be taken to drastically reduce the global maternal death burden.
Four elements are essential to maternal death prevention, according to UNFPA. First, prenatal care. It is recommended that expectant mothers receive at least four antenatal visits to check and monitor the health of mother and fetus. Second, skilled birth attendance with emergency backup such as doctors, nurses and midwives who have the skills to manage normal deliveries and recognize the onset of complications. Third, emergency obstetric care to address the major causes of maternal death which are hemorrhage, sepsis, unsafe abortion, hypertensive disorders and obstructed labour. Lastly, postnatal care which is the six weeks following delivery. During this time bleeding, sepsis and hypertensive disorders can occur and newborns are extremely vulnerable in the immediate aftermath of birth. Therefore, follow-up visits by a health worker to assess the health of both mother and child in the postnatal period is strongly recommended.
The decline in maternal deaths has been due largely to improved asepsis, fluid management and blood transfusion, and better prenatal care.
Technologies have been designed for resource poor settings that have been effective in reducing maternal deaths as well. The non-pneumatic anti-shock garment is a low-technology pressure device that decreases blood loss, restores vital signs and helps buy time in delay of women receiving adequate emergency care during obstetric hemorrhage. It has proven to be a valuable resource. Condoms used as uterine tamponades have also been effective in stopping post-partum hemorrhage.
Most maternal deaths are avoidable, as the health-care solutions to prevent or manage complications are well known. Improving access to antenatal care in pregnancy, skilled care during childbirth, and care and support in the weeks after childbirth will reduce maternal deaths significantly. It is particularly important that all births be attended by skilled health professionals, as timely management and treatment can make the difference between life and death. To improve maternal health, barriers that limit access to quality maternal health services must be identified and addressed at all levels of the health system. Recommendations for reducing maternal mortality include access to health care, access to family planning services, and emergency obstetric care, funding and intrapartum care. Reduction in unnecessary obstetric surgery has also been suggested.
Family planning approaches include avoiding pregnancy at too young of an age or too old of an age and spacing births. Access to primary care for women even before they become pregnant is essential along with access to contraceptives.
The biggest global policy initiative for maternal health came from the United Nations' Millennium Declaration which created the Millennium Development Goals. The fifth goal of the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) initiative is to reduce the maternal mortality rate by three quarters between 1990 and 2015 and to achieve universal access to reproductive health by 2015.
Trends through 2010 can be viewed in a report written jointly by the WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, and the World Bank.
Countries and local governments have taken political steps in reducing maternal deaths. Researchers at the Overseas Development Institute studied maternal health systems in four apparently similar countries: Rwanda, Malawi, Niger, and Uganda. In comparison to the other three countries, Rwanda has an excellent recent record of improving maternal death rates. Based on their investigation of these varying country case studies, the researchers conclude that improving maternal health depends on three key factors: 1. reviewing all maternal health-related policies frequently to ensure that they are internally coherent; 2. enforcing standards on providers of maternal health services; 3. any local solutions to problems discovered should be promoted, not discouraged.
In terms of aid policy, proportionally, aid given to improve maternal mortality rates has shrunken as other public health issues, such as HIV/AIDS, have become major international concerns. Maternal health aid contributions tend to be lumped together with newborn and child health, so it is difficult to assess how much aid is given directly to maternal health to help lower the rates of maternal mortality. Regardless, there has been progress in reducing maternal mortality rates internationally.
Maternal deaths and disabilities are leading contributors in women's disease burden with an estimated 275,000 women killed each year in childbirth and pregnancy worldwide. In 2011, there were approximately 273,500 maternal deaths (uncertainty range, 256,300 to 291,700). Forty-five percent of postpartum deaths occur within 24 hours. Ninety-nine percent of maternal deaths occur in developing countries.