Maternal deaths low, but still too high in Indigenous women

maternal deaths story: mother's hand holds baby's hand

Over the five years 2008–2012, there were 105 deaths from complications of pregnancy and childbirth in Australia, with Indigenous women dying at more than twice the non-Indigenous women rate, according to the report Maternal deaths in Australia 2008–2012, released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

“This number equates to the death of one woman for every 14,085 women giving birth in Australia, giving a maternal mortality ratio of 7.1 deaths per 100,000 women,” says AIHW spokesperson and lead author of the report, Professor Michael Humphrey.

“This is marginally higher than the rate in the overlapping 2006–2010 period (6.8 deaths per 100,000 women who gave birth), but these figures should be interpreted with caution due to the small numbers and the rare occurrence of these deaths,” he says.

The term “maternal deaths” refers to the deaths of women while pregnant or within 42 days of the end of pregnancy, from causes related to or aggravated by the pregnancy or its management.

Maternal deaths are divided into direct and indirect deaths. Direct deaths are those that result directly from complications of pregnancy or its management; and indirect deaths are those that are due to other disease but where disease progression is influenced by pregnancy.

In 2008–2012 there were 49 direct maternal deaths and 53 indirect deaths. Three deaths were not able to be classified.

The leading causes of direct maternal death included obstetric haemorrhage (11 deaths), thromboembolism – a blockage of major blood vessels caused by blood clot (10), and hypertensive complications of pregnancy (nine).

“The leading cause of indirect maternal death was cardiac disease and deaths due to psychosocial morbidity (related to mental health and substance abuse issues),” Prof Humphrey says.

The women who died during this period were between 17 and 50 years of age, with women over 35 being at higher risk of maternal death. A higher number of previous pregnancies and obesity were also associated with increased risk.

The incidence of maternal death in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women was more than double that for non-Indigenous women, with maternal mortality ratios of 13.8 and 6.6 deaths per 100,000 women who gave birth, respectively, says Prof Humphrey.

“Deaths due to cardiac conditions and psychosocial causes have been the most prominent in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women over the period 2000 to 2012,” he says.

“The increased risk of death in Indigenous mothers remains a major concern.”

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