A new World Health Organization report found that maternal mortality rates have either increased or remained the same in nearly all regions of the world in the past five years.
"In 2020, we estimate that 287,000 women died globally from a maternal cause, and that's equivalent to almost 800 deaths a day, or a death every 2 minutes," said Dr. Jenny Cresswell, an epidemiologist and author of the WHO report, during a press briefing on Tuesday.
Experts say this trend is a stark reversal from previous significant progress in reducing maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015, revealing a major setback for global maternal health and highlighting disparities in healthcare access.
In the United States, maternal mortality rates increased by 75% over the past 20 years — from roughly 12 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2000 to 21 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births in 2020. The U.S. is one of the eight countries and territories the report flagged as having a significant percentage increase in maternal mortality rates. The list also includes Cyprus, Puerto Rico, Greece, and the Dominican Republic.
The report revealed large inequities between regions of the world. Maternal deaths continue to be largely concentrated in the lowest income areas of the world and the countries most affected by conflict. The highest maternal mortality was reported in Sub-Saharan Africa, with an estimated 545 maternal deaths for every 100,000 live births. Globally, an estimated 7 out of 10 maternal deaths take place in this region.
"Maternal mortality is a key indicator of how a health system is functioning," said Dr. Lale Say of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research at WHO.
WHO experts say maternal deaths increase when women have less access to quality healthcare services, particularly around the time of delivery. Leading causes of maternal death include severe bleeding, high blood pressure, infection, and complications from unsafe abortion. With modern clinical knowledge and technology, the majority of maternal deaths are preventable. However, solutions may not be accessible or implemented in low resource settings, putting some groups at higher risk.
"No woman should die in childbirth. I think that's a human right that should apply in every country, and that's what every government should aim to ensure," said Dr. Anshu Banerjee, Director for the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO.
"An investment in women is an investment in the future of communities and countries," said Say.
Sarah Lee, MD, is an Emergency Medicine resident physician at Staten Island University Hospital and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.