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UN: Most Child, Maternal Deaths Occur in Sub-Saharan Africa

FILE - A woman sits beside her sick child in the pediatric ward at the general hospital in Man, western Ivory Coast, July 4, 2013.

New U.N. data shows sub-Saharan Africa lags behind all other regions in the world in reducing child and maternal mortality. Estimates by the World Health Organization and U.N. children’s fund UNICEF reveal conflict, fragile health systems, and poverty are some of the factors accounting for millions of preventable child and maternal deaths.

Presenting their report Thursday in Geneva, he two U.N. agencies said since 2000, child deaths have dropped by nearly one-half and that maternal deaths are down by more than one-third, mostly due to better access to affordable, quality health services.

The new estimates, however, show 6.2 million children under the age of 15 died last year and nearly 300,000 women died of complications related to pregnancy and childbirth in 2017. The agencies report a pregnant woman or newborn dies every 11 seconds somewhere in the world, mostly of preventable causes.

Peter Salama, WHO's executive director of universal health coverage, says women and children in sub-Saharan Africa are at higher risk of death than in all other regions.

“In 2017, for the first time, half of all child deaths occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. Because of increasing fertility rates, we project that number to reach more than 60 percent of all global child deaths. For maternal deaths today, two-thirds occurred in sub-Saharan Africa,” he said.

Salama says the lifetime risk of a woman dying of pregnancy-related causes is about one in 37 in Africa, compared to one in 7,800 in Australia, his home country. He says the risk of delivering a baby in countries with a stable government is far than less in countries affected by conflict.

He says countries with modest means can make progress in reducing child and maternal mortality. He cites Belarus, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Malawi and Zambia.

“It is clear one reason is they have made a heavy investment in sexual, reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health. They are choosing the right programs and they are investing accordingly in them. But that is not the whole story. They are investing in primary health care and in universal health coverage. In short, they are investing in more comprehensive and integrated systems,” Salama said.

The U.N. Sustainable Development Goals aim to reduce maternal mortality to less than 70 per 100,000 live births and under-five child mortality to at least 25 per 1000 live births by 2030.

WHO and UNICEF say the world must act now and invest the money needed to reduce these deaths. They warn that otherwise, 62 million children under the age of 5 will die between now and 2030, and more than a million maternal lives will be lost.