The health of mothers and children is interrelated and affected by multiple factors. Millions of pregnant women, new mothers, and children experience severe illness or death each year, largely from preventable or treatable causes. Almost all maternal and child deaths (99%) occur in less developed countries, with Africa being the hardest hit region. Attention to maternal and child health (MCH) has been growing over the past decade, under-five and maternal mortality have fallen substantially since 1990, and improving MCH is seen as critical to fostering economic development.
Maternal Health: The health of mothers during pregnancy, childbirth, and in the postpartum period.
Child Health: The health of children from birth through adolescence, with a focus on the health of children under the age of five. Newborn health is the health of babies from birth through the first 28 days of life.
Still, as efforts focus on achieving new global MCH goals such as ending preventable deaths among newborns and children under five and reducing global maternal mortality, significant challenges remain. Although effective interventions are available, lack of funding and limited access to services have hampered progress, particularly on maternal health. There is growing evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic has had detrimental effects on maternal and child health and nutrition – slowing or even reversing some progress made over the past decade – by disrupting essential services including routine immunization efforts and fueling malnutrition.
Each year, an estimated 5 million children under age five – primarily infants – die from largely preventable or treatable causes. In addition, approximately 295,000 women die during pregnancy and childbirth each year, and millions more experience severe adverse consequences. These challenges are especially prevalent in developing countries. Furthermore, sub-Saharan Africa is the hardest hit region in the world, followed by Southern Asia and South-Eastern Asia; altogether they account for approximately 90% of maternal and under-five deaths.
More than a quarter (27%) of all maternal deaths are due to severe bleeding, mostly after childbirth (postpartum hemorrhage). Sepsis (11%), unsafe abortion (8%), and hypertension (14%) are other major causes. Diseases that complicate pregnancy, including malaria, anemia, and HIV, account for about 28% of maternal deaths. Inadequate care during pregnancy and high fertility rates, often due to a lack of access to contraception and other family planning/reproductive health (FP/RH) services, increase the lifetime risk of maternal death. While the percentage of pregnant women receiving the recommended minimum number of four antenatal care visits has been on the rise, it is only 66% globally and lower still in sub-Saharan Africa and Southern Asia.
Newborn and Under-Five Mortality
Complications due to premature births account for more than a third (35%) of newborn deaths, followed by delivery-related complications (24%), sepsis (15%), congenital abnormalities (11%), pneumonia (6%), tetanus (1%), diarrhea (1%), and other causes of death (7%). Low birth weight is a major risk factor and indirect cause of newborn death.
Newborn deaths account for most child deaths (47%), followed by pneumonia (12%), diarrhea (8%), injuries (6%), malaria (5%), measles (2%), HIV/AIDS (1%), and other causes of death (21%). Undernutrition significantly increases children’s vulnerability to these conditions, as does the lack of access to clean water and sanitation.
Key interventions that reduce the risk of maternal mortality include skilled care at birth and emergency obstetric care. Newborn deaths may be substantially reduced through increased use of simple, low-cost interventions, such as breastfeeding, keeping newborns warm and dry, and treating severe newborn infections. When scaled-up, interventions such as immunizations, oral rehydration therapy (ORT), and insecticide-treated mosquito nets (ITNs) have contributed to significant reductions in child morbidity and mortality over the last two decades. Other effective child health interventions include improved access to and use of clean water, sanitation, and hygiene practices like handwashing; improved nutrition; and the treatment of neglected tropical diseases (NTDs). Strengthening health systems and increasing access to services, including through community-based clinics, are also important, and interventions have been found to be more effective when integrated within a comprehensive continuum of care.
There are several key global goals for expanding access to and improving MCH services, including:
SDGs 2 & 3: Save Mothers and Children’s Lives and End All Forms of Malnutrition
Global MCH targets were adopted in 2015 as part of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 2 and 3 and are to, by 2030:
- reduce the global MMR and end preventable deaths of newborns and under-five children (as targets under SDG 3, which is “ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all at all ages”); and
- end all forms of malnutrition (as a target under SDG 2, which is “end hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture”).
Among the global efforts designed to support countries’ progress toward meeting these goals is the Every Woman, Every Child (EWEC) movement and the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) movement, which were both launched in 2010. The U.N.-led EWEC movement aims to operationalize the 2015 Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s, and Adolescents’ Health (2016-2030) by combining the efforts of partners who commit to advancing MCH and related efforts with the goal of ending preventable maternal, newborn, child, and adolescent deaths and stillbirths by 2030, among other goals.invalid The SUN movement is an initiative that aims to bring together partner efforts to support households and women, in particular, and which recognizes that nutrition, maternal health, and child survival are closely linked.
Global Nutrition for Growth Compact
The Global Nutrition for Growth Compact includes a goal of reducing stunting in children and nutrient deficiencies in women and children. Endorsed in 2013 by more than 40 developing country and donor governments, including the U.S., as well as other stakeholders, it committed them to, by 2020:
- ensuring that at least 500 million pregnant women and children under two are reached with effective nutrition interventions;
- reducing the number of children under five stunted by at least 20 million; and
- saving at least 1.7 million under-fives by preventing stunting and increasing breastfeeding and treatment of severe acute malnutrition.
The Tokyo Nutrition for Growth Summit held in December 2021 provided an opportunity for governments to review the status of progress, including the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on efforts, and to make new commitments in support of reaching SDG 2 by 2030; the next Summit will be hosted by France in 2024.
U.S. Government Efforts
The U.S. has been involved in global MCH efforts for more than 50 years. The first U.S. international efforts in the area of MCH began in the 1960s and focused on child survival research, including pioneering research on ORT conducted by the U.S. military, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Early programs included fortifying international food aid with vitamin A (deficiency of which can cause blindness, compromise immune system function, and retard growth among young children) and efforts to control malaria. The U.S. increased support for its child health efforts in FY 1985 when it provided $85 million for child survival activities, nearly doubling funding for this purpose. USAID then developed its first maternal health project in 1989 and introduced a newborn survival strategy in 2001. Funding has increased over time and in FY 2022 reached its highest level to date ($1.435 billion). The U.S. government has adopted a longer-term goal of ending preventable child and maternal deaths by 2035.
USAID serves as the lead U.S. implementing agency for MCH activities, and its efforts are complemented by those of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), NIH, and the Peace Corps. Collectively, U.S. activities reach over 40 countries.
USAID funds a range of MCH interventions (see Table 1), and its MCH efforts focus on 25 “priority countries”, most of which are in Africa and Southern Asia. With a strategic emphasis on reaching the most vulnerable populations and improving access to and quality of care and services for mothers and children across U.S. global health efforts, the agency’s near-term goal had been to save 15 million child lives and 600,000 women’s lives from 2012 through 2020 in priority countries; these countries account for approximately 70% of global maternal and child deaths While short of achieving this goal, USAID reports that its efforts over the past ten years have helped save the lives of more than 9.3 million children and 340,000 women. Additionally, in 2014, USAID released, for the first time, a multisectoral nutrition strategy that focuses on improving linkages among its humanitarian, global health, and development efforts to better address both the direct and underlying causes of malnutrition and to build resilience and food security in vulnerable communities.
|Newborns and Children||Women|
|Essential newborn care||Skilled care at birth|
|Postnatal visits||Emergency obstetric care|
|Prevention and treatment of severe childhood diseases||Improved access to FP/RH and birth spacing|
|Immunizations, including those for polio, measles, and tetanus||Antenatal care, including aseptic techniques to prevent sepsis|
|Malaria prevention (including ITNs) and, for mothers, intermittent preventive treatment during pregnancy (IPTp)|
|HIV prevention/treatment/care, including prevention of mother-to-child-transmission (PMTCT) of HIV|
|Clean water, sanitation, and hygiene efforts|
|Health systems strengthening (health workforce, information systems, pharmaceutical management, infrastructure development)|
|Implementation science and operational research|
Other U.S. MCH Efforts
CDC operates immunization programs, provides scientific and technical assistance, and works to build capacity in a broad array of MCH (and related RH) areas. It also serves as a World Health Organization Collaborating Center on reproductive, maternal, perinatal, and child health. NIH addresses MCH by carrying out basic science and implementation research, sometimes in cooperation with other countries. The Peace Corps carries out MCH-related volunteer projects around the world.
Additionally, U.S. global FP/RH efforts are also critical to improving MCH (the internationally agreed upon definition of reproductive health includes both FP and MCH), although Congress directs funding to and USAID operates these programs separately. (See the KFF fact sheet on U.S. international FP/RH efforts.)
Other U.S. global health and related efforts addressing conditions that threaten the health of many pregnant women, new mothers, and children include the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), the President’s Malaria Initiative (PMI), USAID’s NTD Program, Feed the Future, and clean water efforts under the Water for the Poor and Water for the World Acts. (See the KFF fact sheets on U.S. PEPFAR efforts, U.S. global malaria efforts, and U.S. global NTD efforts.)
The U.S. government partners with several international institutions and supports global MCH funding mechanisms. Key among them are:
- Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance (a multilateral financing mechanism aiming to increase access to immunization in poor countries to which the U.S. is one of the largest donors; see the KFF fact sheet on the U.S. and Gavi);
- the Global Financing Facility (GFF, a partnership to improve the health of women, children, and adolescents through innovative financing in which the U.S. is an investor);
- the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI, a public-private partnership aiming to advance efforts to eradicate polio to which the U.S. is the second largest donor; see the KFF fact sheet on U.S. global polio efforts); and
- the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF, a U.N. agency aiming to improve the lives of children, particularly the most disadvantaged children and adolescents, to which the U.S. is the largest donor; UNICEF is one of the largest purchasers of vaccines worldwide).
Total U.S. funding for MCH and nutrition, which includes the U.S. contributions to Gavi and UNICEF as well as support for polio activities, has increased over time. It rose from $728 million in FY 2006 to $1.435 billion in FY 2022, its highest level to date (see figure). MCH funding totaled $1.28 billion in FY 2022 and includes $848 million for bilateral efforts (of which $253 million was for polio activities) and $429 million for multilateral efforts ($290 million for Gavi and $139 million for UNICEF). Nutrition funding, all of which was for bilateral efforts, totaled $158 million in FY 2022. The current administration has proposed a similar level of MCH and nutrition funding for FY 2023.
Most U.S. funding for MCH and nutrition is provided through the Global Health Programs account at USAID, with additional funding provided through the Economic Support Fund account. MCH funding is also provided through the International Organizations & Programs account at the State Department for the U.S. contribution to UNICEF and through CDC’s global immunization programs. (See the KFF fact sheets on the U.S. Global Health Budget: Maternal & Child Health and the U.S. Global Health Budget: Nutrition.)
Although not included as part of core MCH funding, in FY 2021 the U.S. also appropriated $4 billion in emergency COVID-19 funding to Gavi to support COVID-19 vaccine procurement and delivery through COVAX (see the KFF brief on COVAX and the U.S. for more information).
Key Issues for the U.S.
Over the past ten years, international and U.S. activities have brought renewed attention to and funding for MCH efforts. As the global community endeavors to support and fund efforts to achieve SDGs 2 and 3’s MCH and nutrition targets, the COVID-19 pandemic threatens past gains and continued progress, with concern about the detrimental effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has had and continues to have on MCH and MCH programming, including disruptions in basic MCH services such as routine immunization. Mitigating and reversing this impact remains a focus of U.S. and other efforts. Other key issues and challenges for U.S. efforts include:
- continuing to expand access to and ensure the quality of MCH services, while building local capacity;
- reaching the most vulnerable, particularly adolescent girls and young women;
- supporting advances in research and uptake of new technologies and vaccines;
- further integration of MCH efforts with other U.S. global health programs (such as family planning and reproductive health as well as global HIV under PEPFAR) and broader U.S. development efforts (including education and food security);
- coordinating efforts with the activities of other donors and partner countries to maximize the impact of available resources; and
- addressing the immediate and long term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on maternal and child health.