Maternal deaths on the decline, but room for improvement

Maternal death rates in Australia have been declining, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

Maternal Deaths in Australia 1997-99 shows 90 maternal deaths were reported over the three year period 1997-99. Although not as low as observed in 1991-93, the 1997-99 results represent a return to the steady decline in evidence since the 1960s.

'But these results are no reason for complacency,' said Associate Professor James King, who chairs the Institute's Advisory Committee on Maternal Mortality.

'There were 34 deaths resulting directly from obstetric complications, the most common of which were obstetric haemorrhage and amniotic fluid embolism. Avoidable factors were possibly or certainly present in almost half of these direct deaths, and in 36% of the deaths overall.'

'Evidence-based clinical guidelines are available for prevention and management of several of the major obstetric complications, and these should be uniformly used in Australian maternity institutions,' Professor King said.

'The accepted international measure of maternal mortality is the Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR), based on direct and indirect deaths, but not those incidental deaths due to events such as road accidents.

'Australia's MMR of 8.2 compares with 11.4 in the UK over the same period,' Professor King noted, 'although the MMR for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women remains some three times higher than for other women in Australia.'

Professor King also noted that many maternal deaths had not been referred to coroners, with only 59% of direct deaths and 54% of indirect deaths being the subject of coronial inquests.

Professor King pointed out that efforts were continuing to improve data collection on maternal death in all states and territories.

'With such small numbers of deaths, it is essential that we learn as much as we can from each one, so that giving birth in Australia becomes even safer than at present.'

12 August 2004

Further information: James King, tel. 03 9616 2694 or mobile 0419 720 281.

For media copies of the report: Publications Officer, AIHW, tel. 02 6244 1032.