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Analysis: Hope for mothers around the world

Low-tech solutions, like kangaroo care, help decrease maternal mortality rates worldwide, according to new research.

A child touches her pregnant mother's stomach at the last stages of her pregnancy in Bordeaux April 28, 2010. (Regis Duvignau/Reuters)

NEW YORK — A trifecta of studies examining the death rates of young children and new mothers offers a glimmer of hope among dismal statistics.

The bad news, which isn’t really news at all to anyone who has opened a newspaper in the past decade, is that some 300,000 women die every year because they do not have any care whatsoever during pregnancy and childbirth. The good news — which really is newsworthy — is that we seem to be making headway in some places.

The reports come from data collected by Save the Children, which released its 11th State of the World’s Mothers on May 3; The Lancet, a British medical journal which published an international study on April 22; and Amnesty International, which ironically provided a very un-international report focusing on maternal mortality in the U.S., which is, strikingly, getting worse.

According to Save the Children, the 10 best places to be a mother (which simply means you are most likely to survive the process of becoming one) are: Norway, Australia, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany. The 10 worst places (meaning, you are most likely to die) ranked from the bottom up: Afghanistan, Niger, Chad, Guinea-Bissau, Yemen, DR Congo, Mali, Sudan, Eritrea and Equatorial Guinea.

It is no coincidence that the top-ranking countries have the most skilled health workers per pregnant woman and child while the countries at the bottom of the chart have the fewest trained helpers. Among the losers in this rating this system, about one in 23 women die during childbirth and about one in six children die before the age of 5. The U.S. ranked a pathetic 28th.

According to the Amnesty International report, for every 100,000 women giving birth in the U.S. about 13.3 died, according to statistics collected in 2006, which is up from 6.6 in 1987. Part of the increase may be due to better data collection, but experts say the increase may also be the result of older women giving birth, obesity and lack of access to care among poor women.

With data collection so murky throughout the world, the key is not comparing the U.S. to other countries, which may not have accurate statistics, but examining which women in America are at greatest risk. African-American women, for instance, are more than four times as likely to die from pregnancy complications than women of other races, according to the Amnesty report. Maternal mortality rates among African American women have been high for the past two decades, and little has been done to change that.

Globally, there is hope. The Save the Children report points  to a six-week health-training course for rural women in Bangladesh that led to a 34-percent decrease in newborn mortality and a 53-percent cut in maternal mortality. Similar programs in Nepal, India, Bolivia and Ghana nearly cut childhood mortality in half. Health-worker training programs have been launched elsewhere — in Ethiopia and Hondoras, to name a couple, but it is too early to judge the outcome.

Sometimes simple low-tech solutions, such as so-called kangaroo care (when mothers hold their premature yet stable newborns against their skin to breastfeed), halved death rates among newborns. In essence, mothers’ warm skin serves as the incubator.