US lags behind in maternal care

Despite its enormous wealth and highly advanced technology, the United States lags far behind other industrialised countries — and even some developing ones — in providing adequate health care to women during pregnancy and childbirth. The US ranks 41st in a new analysis of maternal mortality rates in 171 countries released by a group of UN public health experts on Friday. The survey shows that even a developing country like South Korea is ahead of the US.

“Women are unnecessarily dying from pregnancy and childbirth complications because the US is moving in a wrong direction,” said Beneva Schulte of Women Deliver, a Washington-based group campaigning for women’s reproductive rights. Based on 2005 estimates, the UN analysis suggests that one in 4,800 women in the US carry a lifetime risk of death from pregnancy. By contrast, among the 10 top-ranked industrialised countries, fewer than one in 16,400 face a similar situation.

The reason? According to experts, in many European countries and Japan in the industrialised world, women are guaranteed good-quality health and family planning services that minimise their lifetime risk. Many independent experts and sympathetic legislators hold the current US public health policy responsible for its dismal record because some 47% US citizens have no access to health insurance, most of them African Americans and other minorities.

According to researchers, in countries like Somalia, Mali, Chad, and Niger, on average more than one in every 15 women is likely to die of pregnancy-related causes. In Niger, the estimate suggests that one out seven women is vulnerable to death during pregnancy. Their analysis comes at a time when many development activists and UN officials are evaluating how far the world has progressed in meeting the Millennium Development Goals agreed upon by the world leaders seven years ago.

When the world leaders attended a summit in New York in September 2000, they agreed that the MDGs must be achieved by 2015. That commitment included policy initiatives to reduce maternal mortality by 75%. Many experts believe that in the past seven years nothing much has changed for the millions of poor women with regard to their economic wellbeing and access to health care. At the current pace, there is little hope that the world will be able to achieve the 75% target.

“We still have the situation we had 20 years ago,” said Ann Starrs of the independent group Family Care International in a statement. “Half a million women die every year from the complications of childbirth.” A recent study by Harvard University professor Ken Hill found that between 1990 and 2005, maternal deaths did fall, but by less than one percent a year. Hill and many other researchers estimate that at least 10 to 20 million women suffer injuries from the complications of childbirth every year.

Experts say this suffering could be easily avoided if international donors contributed just $6.1 billion over the next seven years. On Oct. 18-20, more than 1,500 world leaders will convene in London for “Women Deliver”, a global conference that will focus on creating political will and strengthening health systems to prevent the deaths of “one woman every minute during pregnancy or childbirth”. — IPS