Most parts of world saw maternal mortality rates spike in 2020

By Sriparna Roy

(Reuters) - Maternal mortality rates climbed or stagnated in nearly all regions across the world in 2020, according to a report released by U.N. agencies on Wednesday, marking a major setback in global efforts to combat complications during childbirth or pregnancy.

The report, which tracks maternal mortality nationally, regionally and globally from 2000 to 2020, showed there were an estimated 287,000 maternal deaths worldwide in 2020, and it marks only a slight decrease from 309,000 in 2016.

That translates to a woman dying every two minutes during childbirth or pregnancy, the report estimated.

"It is unacceptable that so many women continue to die needlessly in pregnancy and childbirth. Over 280,000 fatalities in a single year is unconscionable," said Natalia Kanem, executive director at the United Nations Population Fund.

The data suggests that deaths rose in areas with less access to timely health services, said study author and World Health Organization epidemiologist Jenny Cresswell.

In two of the eight UN regions – Europe and Northern America, and Latin America and the Caribbean – the maternal mortality rate increased from 2016 to 2020, by 17% and 15%, respectively.

The report, however, noted there was a significant reduction in maternal deaths between 2000 and 2015, where they fell roughly 2.7% every year, but the progress largely stalled or even reversed after a point.

Most deaths were largely concentrated in the poorest parts of the world, and in countries affected by conflict.

Cresswell said the global mortality rates have been "effectively zero" in the first five years since the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) came into effect.

The SDGs aim to reduce maternal deaths to 70 per 100,000 live births globally by 2030.

The 2020 rate was estimated at 223 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.

The COVID-19 pandemic may have further held back progress, according to the UN agencies.

But "the trends that we're seeing have been occurring for five or six years at least, so they do predate the pandemic by several years," said Cresswell.

(Reporting by Sriparna Roy in Bengaluru; Editing by Sherry Jacob-Phillips)