Over 60 countries risk missing out on maternal, newborn and stillborn SDGs targets – WHO chief warns

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By Kemo Cham in Cape Town

Over 60 countries are at risk of not meeting the maternal, newborn and stillborn targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) if urgent action is not taken, the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, has warned.

While acknowledging progress made in efforts to reduce maternal and newborn mortality in the last 20 years, Dr Ghebreyesus said reductions in maternal and newborn deaths have now plateaued, noting that newborn mortalities still accounted for almost half of under-five mortality.

“Every year, 4.5 million mothers, newborns and stillborns die from preventable causes,” he told delegates at the ongoing Maternal and Newborn Health Conference in Cape Town, South Africa on Tuesday, May 9.

“Where a child is born or how much money its family has should not determine whether it lives or dies. But this is still the reality for many women and babies worldwide,” the WHO chief added, as part of a keynote statement during the first plenary of the four-day event that began on Monday, May 8 at the Cape Town International Convention Center.

MNHC2023 is the maiden edition of a biennial conference which the organizers hope will provide a forum for accountability and to measure progress and assess challenges in efforts to deal with maternal, newborn and stillborn mortality. They say it will enable pathways to drive collaboration, coordination, cross-country learning, and alignment within the maternal and newborn health community.

The second day of the conference featured the first plenary, which entailed speeches, presentations and panel discussions on the global trend on Maternal and Newborn health and efforts to address the issues from around the world. 

Various experts lamented the slow pace of progress in the fight against Maternal and Newborn mortality. 

Dr Ghebreyesus, in his statement delivered via a live video link to the over 1500 delegates at the first plenary, stressed that urgent action was needed to reignite progress which could save 7.8 million lives. He called on countries to develop and finance evidence-based plans for maternal and newborn health and to integrate relevant programs into their respective universal health coverage packages and deliver them through primary healthcare.

Delegates at the MNHC2023 attending the first plenary in Auditorium 1 in the Cape Town Convention Center on May 9, 2023. Photo credit, Kemo Cham, ManoReporter.

Sub-Saharan Africa and Central and Southern Asia are identified as the regions experiencing the largest number of maternal and newborn deaths, with the Africa region bearing the largest burden.

UN data show that in 2020, 70 percent of all maternal deaths occurred globally where in sub-Saharan Africa.

Tuesday also saw the launch of a joint WHO, UNICEF and UNFPA report showing estimates in the progress on maternal and newborn mortality. The joint Every Newborn action Plan (ENAP) and Ending Preventable Maternal Mortality (EPMM) progress tracking report show that the global progress in reducing deaths of pregnant women, mothers and babies has remained static for eight years due to decreasing investments, and it blames it on the COVID-19 pandemic, rising poverty, and worsening humanitarian crises which it said intensified pressure on already overstretched maternity and newborn health services.

According to the report, out of the combined 4.5 million deaths between 2020 and 2021, there were 0.29 million maternal deaths, 1.9 million stillbirths and 2.3 million newborn deaths.

“Pregnant women and newborns continue to die at unacceptably high rates worldwide, and the COVID-19 pandemic has created further setbacks to providing them with the healthcare they need,” Dr Anshu Banerjee, Director of Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health and Ageing at WHO, said in a statement.

“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,” he added.

MNHC is organized by the AlignMNH, a global initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in collaboration with the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the government of South Africa.

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