Death by birth

BY SIMEON TALLEY | JULY 23, 2009 7:15 AM

Imagine the likelihood of you or someone you know surviving childbirth as one in seven.

By the time you finish reading this column, four women will have died from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth.

Every year, 529,000 women suffer maternal deaths globally, and for every woman who dies, there are an estimated 20 more who suffer injury, infection or disease.

For too many women living in developing countries, these are their very unfortunate realities.
Citizens and politicians in the United States are in the midst of a serious debate over how to reform our health-care system. Costs are too high for too many. Millions don’t have heath insurance. Millions more are underinsured and are just one hospital bill away from financial ruin.

We seem to have a rare consensus among the public and lawmakers of both parties that reform is necessary. Exactly what type of reform and how the Obama administration and Congress move forward remain to be seen. But the current health-care debate in the United States should give Americans pause to contemplate our own health-care system and global health. And if you look closely at the health of the billions of people living in the world, you’ll begin to see that in many instances, we are worlds apart. The disparity in maternal death rates of women living in developed countries and developing countries is gaping — and that gap could be growing. While on average and relatively, the health of individuals living in developed nations is improving. When we examine health indicators like maternal death in developing countries we have seen negligible, if any, improvement at all.

A woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is one in 7,300 in developed countries. In developing countries, it is one in 75. A woman’s lifetime risk of dying from pregnancy-related complications is one in seven in Niger versus one in 48,000 in Ireland. What these numbers starkly illuminate are the vast disparities and inequities that exist in our world.

Maternal death is only one indicator of global-health measurements that point to this disparity. Yet there is something about high rates of maternal deaths that leaves me particularly disheartened. We all know that extreme poverty and injustice inflict our world. Fortunately to most of us, we only encounter them casually and surreally. But that we live in a world in which a young girl who might not reach the age of 22 dies from giving birth because she doesn’t have access to skilled health professionals is heartbreaking. One of the most fundamental and necessary of all life activities jeopardizes the lives of millions of women each day, tragically ironic.

What this also underscores is that we still have so far to go in ensuring greater equality, opportunity, and rights for women all across our world. That so many women die from complications during childbirth or pregnancy is evident that in many parts of the world, women are still treated as second-class citizens and that those of us in wealthy nations have not done enough about it.

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