Maternal death rate remains low for Australian women—but some groups at greater risk

Deaths from complications of pregnancy and childbirth are rare among Australian women, but some groups are at greater risk than others, according to a report released today by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

Over the five years 2006-2010, there were 99 maternal deaths in Australia according to the report, Maternal deaths in Australia 2006-2010. This equates to a rate of 6.8 deaths per 100,000 women who gave birth in Australia. While lower than the rates for the previous three year reporting period 2003-2005 (8.4 deaths per 100,000 women who gave birth), and 2000-2002 (11.1 deaths per 100,000 women who gave birth), trends should be interpreted with caution due to the small numbers and the rare occurrence of these deaths.

'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,' said AIHW spokesperson Professor Michael Humphrey.

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 2006-2010 there were 39 direct maternal deaths and 57 indirect deaths. Three deaths were not able to be classified as direct or indirect.

The leading causes of direct maternal death included embolism (a blockage of major blood vessels) caused by amniotic fluid (accounting for 9 deaths) or blood clot (8), and haemorrhage (7).

'The leading cause of indirect maternal death was cardiac disease (15 deaths), followed by deaths due to psychosocial morbidity (related to mental health and substance abuse issues) (13 deaths),' Professor Humphrey said.

Overall, the women who died were aged between 17 and 45 years, with women aged over 40 being at higher risk of maternal death. A higher number of previous pregnancies was also associated with increased risk, as was residing in Remote or Very remote areas.

'Indigenous women were about three times as likely to die as non-Indigenous women, with a maternal mortality rate of 16.4 deaths per 100,000 women giving birth (9 deaths),' Professor Humphrey
said. 'Sepsis and cardiac conditions have been the leading causes of maternal death among Indigenous women over the period 1997 to 2010.'

The AIHW is a major national agency set up by the Australian Government to provide reliable, regular and relevant information and statistics on Australia's health and welfare.

Canberra, 19 August 2014

Further information: Professor Michael Humphrey, Chair, National Maternal Mortality Advisory Committee, mob. 0400 664 570