When countries invest resources in the health of women, entire societies benefit. In recent years, the United Nations, academic institutions, the private sector, governments, non-governmental organizations, and donor agencies have spent significant time and money on improving women's health. With this increased attention, the world has seen an increase in evidence and information as well as some exciting improvements in health outcomes.
While reports from the United Nations as well as the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) indicate that maternal deaths are declining around the world, far too many women continue to die from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth. According to IHME, despite the recent attention to women's health, 273,500 women died in 2011 from complications related to pregnancy and childbirth.
In fact, every 90 seconds a young woman dies unnecessarily when she is giving life. More than 90 percent of these deaths could be avoided, if all women had timely access to good quality care. Ninety-nine percent of these deaths happen among the poorest and most disempowered women in the world.
While most maternal deaths happen in developing countries, the United States is also facing significant problems with maternal health. In the U.S., maternal mortality is much higher than in most other developed countries and is concentrated among the poorest and most marginalized women. The U.S. ranks 136th in the world when it comes to maternal mortality ratios. It stands well behind Singapore and Serbia and just marginally ahead of Iran and Saudi Arabia, where a broad range of gender-based social and health inequities persist.
Most maternal deaths are due to obstetric complications, e.g. severe bleeding, infection, high blood pressure during pregnancy, unsafe abortion, and obstructed labor. These complications do not discriminate; they happen in developed and developing countries and among rich and poor women alike.
For many years, the global health community has had the clinical knowledge and tools to successfully address the unexpected complications that can arise during the time of delivery and the postpartum period, the most dangerous period for both mothers and babies. What is missing is access to high quality care and information for the most marginalized.
The death of a mother means the preventable loss of a young woman, which by itself is morally untenable for any society. But the damage caused by one mother's death has a far-reaching effect.
When a mother dies:
• her children are at a greater risk of dying than children who have not lost their mothers;
• the risk of teenage pregnancy among her daughters increases;
• her children are more likely to drop out of school;
• her children are less likely to receive preventive care such as vaccines; and
• productivity and economic gains in her family and community suffer.
I lead a project at the Harvard School of Public Health called the Maternal Health Task Force that engages a number of strategies -- from research and knowledge sharing to education and technical assistance -- that aims to prevent maternal deaths.
Later today, I will sit down with Julio Frenk, dean of the Harvard School of Public Health, and Christy Turlington Burns, founder of the Every Mother Counts advocacy campaign and producer of the documentary, No Woman, No Cry. We plan to discuss the ways that access to quality health care and health education can play a significant role in improving the health of women around the world. The event, which is being hosted in partnership with The Huffington Post will be moderated by HuffPost Senior Columnist Lisa Belkin.