The U.N. Children's Fund says progress on reducing maternal mortality has been far too slow and must now be accelerated. In its just launched Progress for Children Report, UNICEF finds more than half a million women in developing countries die every year from complications due to pregnancy or childbirth. Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.

The U.N. Children's Fund reports nearly all maternal deaths occur in developing countries, with more than half of them in sub-Saharan Africa. It says South Asia is the region with the second highest maternal mortality rate.

In developing countries, the report says the risk of death from complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth over the course of a woman's lifetime is one in 76 compared with one in 8,000 in the industrialized world.

UNICEF Chief of Strategic Information, Tessa Wardlaw, says the riskiest place to give birth is Niger, where the average number of births is seven.

"This results then in a lifetime risk of a staggering one in seven of dying from pregnancy or childbirth related causes. This shocks me every time I see that statistic. If we compare that to Ireland, for example, a country with low maternal mortality and low fertility, that risk is reduced to one in 47,600."

UNICEF say haemorrhage is the most common cause of death, particularly in Africa and Asia. It says a woman's overall health, including her nutritional level and HIV status, also influences the chances of a positive outcome to her pregnancy and childbirth.

In addition, it says societal factors, such as poverty, the low status of women, poor education, discrimination and cultural and traditional practices influence a pregnant woman's chances of survival.

The report finds 70,000 maternal deaths occur among girls between the ages of 15 and 19. Death is the extreme consequence of maternal ill health. But, UNICEF Chief of Health, Peter Salama says many of those who survive are plagued with serious problems.

"For every maternal death, another 20 women face long-term suffering due to fistula prolapse and other significant injuries. Thirdly, these adverse effects extend to the newborn child. There is an inextricable link between maternal and newborn health. This is important because around 40 percent of the more than nine million deaths of children under five that occur globally, forty percent of these are due to newborn disorders. Furthermore, we know that children who lose a mother in the first six-weeks of life, have an increased mortality rate extending through the first two years," he said.

Dr. Salama says most maternal deaths are avoidable. He says some of the important measures that can save women's lives include family planning, the presence of a skilled birth attendant, the availability of emergency obstetric care and post natal care for women and their newborn children.