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Progress on reducing infant and maternal deaths has stalled, WHO warns


International progress on maternal and infant health is stagnating, the World Health Organization suggests in a report. Agency officials cited “extraordinarily high” rates of preventable maternal deaths, stillbirths and newborn deaths in a document released this month.

In 2020 alone, the agency reports, a combined 4.5 million deaths occurred among mothers and infants, including 290,000 maternal deaths, 1.9 million stillbirths and 2.3 million newborn deaths worldwide.

The analysis measured progress toward United Nations’ goals to reduce maternal mortality, end preventable deaths of newborns and children under age 5, and reduce stillbirth worldwide. To do so, member states have set health-care targets in areas including prenatal care, the presence of skilled health professionals at every birth and postnatal care for newborns.

But those goals are proving hard to reach, the WHO warns. Gains in the past decade were slower than between 2000 and 2010, the agency says, and the pandemic, climate change, humanitarian crises and other factors could further slow progress.

Sixty percent of the deaths occurred in 10 countries: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, China, Indonesia, Afghanistan and Tanzania.

To meet targets, the world would need to decrease maternal mortality by 11.6 percent annually this decade, compared with a 1.3 decrease each year between 2010 and 2020, and continue reducing stillbirths and infant deaths.

Nonetheless, the agency writes, “there is the potential to save at least 7.8 million lives” by the end of the decade with stepped-up investments in health-care funding and primary care, reestablishing services disrupted during the pandemic, and fighting poverty, gender discrimination and humanitarian crises worldwide.

“Pregnant women and newborns continue to die at unacceptably high rates worldwide,” said Anshu Banerjee, the WHO’s director of maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health and aging, in a news release. “If we wish to see different results, we must do things differently. More and smarter investments in primary healthcare are needed now so that every woman and baby — no matter where they live — has the best chance of health and survival.”