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UNICEF: Extreme Risks for Pregnant Women and Newborn Babies in Developing Countries


Toronto, January 15, 2009 - Women in the world’s least developed countries are 300 times more likely to die in childbirth or from pregnancy-related complications than women in developed countries, according to UNICEF’s latest The State of the World’s Children report, released in Johannesburg today. (

At the same time, a child born in a developing country is almost 14 times more likely to die during the first month of life than a child born in a developed one.

Rapid and significant progress on maternal and newborn health is possible. Dramatic results can be achieved with minimal investment. For example, iron supplements cost less than 80 cents per person per year. This is a significant fact when we know that severe iron deficiency anaemia is causing the death of more than 60,000 young women a year in pregnancy and childbirth.

“With sound strategy, political commitment, adequate funding and collaboration we can make a positive difference to individual lives,” says Nigel Fisher, President and CEO of UNICEF Canada. “It is critically important, especially in this period of economic turmoil, that Canada sustain, and in fact strengthen, its commitment to mothers and infants in developing countries.”

“UNICEF Canada is calling on the Canadian government to build on the commitments it has made to date in child and maternal health which have saved many lives.”

The report points to the impact of Canada’s $105 million contribution (2007-2012) to UNICEF for the Initiative to Save a Million Lives which aims to deliver affordable health care services directly to local communities in sub-Saharan Africa. Research shows that approximately 80 percent of maternal deaths could be averted if women had access to essential maternity and basic health-care services.

The health and survival of mothers and their newborns are linked, and many of the interventions that save new mothers’ lives also benefit their infants. The 2009 edition of UNICEF’s flagship publication The State of the World’s Children highlights the link between maternal and neonatal survival, and suggests opportunities to close the gap between rich and poor countries.

“Every year, more than half a million women die as a result of pregnancy or childbirth complications, including about 70,000 girls and young women aged 15 to 19,” said Ann M. Veneman, UNICEF Executive Director at the Johannesburg launch. “Since 1990, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth have killed an estimated 10 million women.”

Both mothers and infants are vulnerable in the days and weeks after birth – a critical time for life-saving interventions such as post-natal visits, proper hygiene, and counseling about the danger signs of maternal and newborn health.

Many developing countries have made excellent progress improving the survival rate of children under five in recent years. Globally, the mortality rate of children under five fell from 13 million in 1990 to 9.2 million in 2007. However, there has been less headway in reducing maternal mortality and addressing health risks for mothers, who are most vulnerable during delivery and in the first days after birth. The maternal mortality rate has gone mostly unchanged during this same period. And the risks faced by infants in the first 28 days of life remain at unacceptably high levels in many countries.

In developing countries, a woman has a one in 76 lifetime risk of maternal death, compared with a probability of one in 11,000 for women in Canada. Approximately 99 percent of global deaths arising from pregnancy and complications occur in developing countries, where having a child remains among the most serious health risks for women. The vast majority of such deaths occur in Africa and Asia, where high fertility rates, a shortage of trained personnel and weak health systems spell tragedy for many young women.

The 10 countries with the highest lifetime risk of maternal death are Niger, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Chad, Angola, Liberia, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guinea-Bissau, and Mali. A woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death in these countries ranges from one in seven in Niger to one in 15 in Mali.

And for every woman who dies, another 20 suffer illnesses or injury, often with severe and lasting consequences.

To lower maternal and infant mortality, the report recommends essential services be provided through health systems that integrate a continuum of home, community, outreach and facility-based care. This continuum of care concept transcends the traditional emphasis on single, disease-specific interventions, calling instead for a model of primary health care that embraces every stage of maternal, newborn and child health.

The report also finds that health services are most effective in an environment supportive of women’s empowerment, protection, and education. “Saving the lives of mothers and their newborns requires more than just medical intervention,” said Veneman. “Educating girls is pivotal to improving maternal and neonatal health and also benefits families and societies.”


UNICEF is on the ground in over 150 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation and AIDS. UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.

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