In 2015, we can restore functioning limbs to amputees, HIV is no longer a death sentence, and technology can restore sight to the blind. Yet, despite all these medical breakthroughs, women continue to die during childbirth — about one woman every two minutes, to be precise. Comprehensive reviews of global maternal deaths from 1990 to 2015 have revealed that rates are down but still not quite low enough. They also show where we've gone right and wrong in protecting the health of those who bring us into the world.

As revealed by the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, from 1990 to 2013, the maternal mortality rate was 45 percent. Although the report reveals that the goal of a 75 percent reduction by 2015 will not be met, the improvement is still notable. More women are receiving antenatal care, fewer teens are having children, and family planning use is slowly increasing. Still, it’s estimated that every day around 800 women die from complications during childbirth.

The World Health Organization reports that more than half of all maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa and nearly a third occur in South Asia. The rate of maternal death in developing regions is 14 times higher than that in developed regions, but the truth remains the United States is the only first world country whose rate of maternal death is increasing rather than decreasing. In the U.S., an estimated 28 die for every 100,000 births. Americans also spend more than any other country on hospitalization for pregnancy and childbirth.

Why Mothers Die

According to the World Health Organization, the number one cause of maternal death is pre-existing conditions, such as diabetes, malaria, and HIV, which pregnancy exacerbates. Severe bleeding caused by childbirth is the second most common cause of maternal death and makes up more than a quarter of them. Severe bleeding after delivery, also known as postpartum hemorrhage, can occur when the uterus does not contract strongly enough after delivery to compress the bleeding caused after the release of the placenta. Post-partum bleeding may also be caused by a number of other complications, such as tearing in the cervix or vagina during delivery, or a blood clotting disorder. Infection, obstructed labor, abortion complications, and blood clotting are also leading and highly preventable causes of maternal mortality.

Although many may view maternal deaths as those which occur during or soon after delivery, in reality, half of all maternal deaths occur more than a day after childbirth, with some occurring up to a year later. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, up to 55 percent of all maternal deaths in the U.S. are attributed to cardiovascular disease and infection and can occur many months after the actual delivery.

Where We've Gone Wrong And How To Move Forward

Childbirth has long been one of the most dangerous experiences for a woman. Slate reported that only 100 years ago, more than 600 women died per 100,000 births in America. Infection has long been a leading cause of death in new mothers, but thankfully, with the onset of antibiotics in the 1930s, U.S. maternal deaths began to fall.

Although rates are down, they are still not low enough. One of the easiest ways to continue to reduce the rate of maternal mortalities is to improve access to reproductive health. Reducing the number of teen births and unplanned pregnancies by increasing contraceptive use is an important factor in lowering the number of maternal deaths. Increasing the access to care that pregnant women receive before actual delivery is also a key factor to bringing down the rate, since deaths from conditions such as pre-eclampsia, a condition characterized by high blood pressure during pregnancy, can be avoided if addressed early on.

Another key way to reduce the number of maternal deaths is by improving access to adequate health care during delivery. Conditions such as infection and severe bleeding caused by childbirth can often be either prevented or effectively treated if addressed by an individual with proper medical training.

The UN has now set a goal to reduce the current maternal death rate of every 210 women per 100,000 births to less than 70 by 2030. By becoming more aware of the issues that contribute to this global health concern and working to make health care more accessible to expectant mothers, we can help turn this goal into a reality.

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