July 19, 2011— On October 31 this year, the world is on target to cross a momentous threshold when the global population reaches 7 billion, up from 2.5 billion in 1950—a remarkably fast rise in 61 years.
The population milestone is an important reminder, say World Bank experts, that birth rates in many developing countries are significantly higher than in better-off parts of the world, making it more difficult for poor nations to achieve better maternal and child health results called for by the 2015 Millennium Development Goals.
Between 10 and 20 million women continue to suffer from preventable reproductive health illnesses every year, with young women especially at risk of death and illness. Maternal deaths fell from 546,000 in 1990 to 358,000 in 2008. However, 99% (355,000) of these deaths still occur in developing countries, with the highest maternal mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa (640 per 100,000 live births).
In an update this week on the Bank’s one-year-old Reproductive Health Action Plan, Bank experts pointed to several countries taking the lead in improving reproductive health outcomes. With Bank support, Mozambique is improving supplies of essential drugs and medical supplies, including contraceptives. Swaziland is training doctors and midwives in obstetrics. Bangladesh is improving the delivery of reproductive, maternal and child health services, including better access to skilled-birth attendants and better nutrition for pregnant women and children.
In Yemen, Bank programs are increasing access to maternal and child health services, especially in the country’s remote rural areas.
Bank financing for better reproductive health jumped by 59%, to $ 830 million in the last fiscal year, up from $490 million in FY10. In addition, the Bank has developed detailed profiles for 47 of its 57 high-priority countries under the Reproductive Health Action Plan. This includes 35 countries as part of the Bank’s commitment to the U.N. Secretary General’s Global Strategy for Women and Children.
Stronger Health Systems
According to Bank Vice President for Human Development Tamar Manuelyan Atinc, “The great majority of pregnancy-related deaths and illnesses can be prevented with stronger health systems, good governance, and vastly less poverty.”
Atinc says better girls’ education is also essential to improving maternal and child health in poor countries. Analysis of demographic and health surveys shows that women with secondary or higher education have fewer children than women with primary or no education in all regions.
“Promoting contraception and family planning is vital to reducing birth rates, as is strengthening health systems to ensure that these services actually reach poor women,” says Dr. Sadia Chowdhury, the Bank’s team leader for the Reproductive Health Action Plan, and a former pediatrician in Bangladesh.
“And time and time again, we see how a woman’s education allows her to better care for her children, builds job skills that allow her to join the workforce and marry later in life, gives her the power to say how many children she wants and when, and these are enduring qualities she will hand down to her daughters and sons as well.”
High Levels of Maternal Deaths
The Bank’s commitment to improving women’s and children’s health is underscored in its 2007 Health, Nutrition and Population Strategy, which emphasizes improved family planning, nutrition, health information, management of health services, and more and better trained health workers to ensure that the poorest get the help they need.
Building on this framework, the Reproductive Health Action Plan details the Bank’s engagement on sexual and reproductive health from 2010 to 2015, focusing on 57 priority countries with high levels of maternal deaths and disability, high fertility rates, and above average levels of sexually transmitted infections (STI) prevalence.