Study Demonstrates Far-reaching Impact of Maternal Deaths on Children in Tanzania

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By: Sarah Blake, MHTF consultant

Maternal health advocates often point out that when a mother dies from complications of pregnancy and childbirth, her surviving family members, particularly her children are left to face a range of negative effects. And, indeed, substantial quantitative evidence from around the world has reinforced this claim: there is little doubt that maternal deaths are strongly associated with an increased risk of poor health, educational outcomes and economic status for their children. Further, the effects seem to be particularly acute for girls. However, gaps in knowledge remain: while it is obvious that mothers’ and children’s health are connected, it is not clear how these connections function.  A new study, “Costs of Inaction on Maternal Mortality: Qualitative Evidence of the Impacts of Maternal Deaths on Living Children in Tanzania,” by Alicia Ely Yamin, Vanessa M. Boulanger, Kathryn L. Falb, Jane Shuma and Jennifer Leaning published in PLOS One offers critical evidence on this gap  in knowledge. The researchers’  in-depth, qualitative approach provides crucial evidence on both the profound effect of a mother’s death on her surviving children, and sheds new light on the many connections between mothers’ and children’s well-being. The authors write:

 “The study illuminates the high costs to surviving children and their families of failing to reduce maternal mortality in this region and highlights potential pathways through which maternal mortality and maternal orphan morbidities are linked. Our findings are consistent with the existing literature on vulnerable children, but highlight the specific health and social impacts that a maternal death can have throughout the course of a child’s life and the all too frequent cycle of poverty and suffering that stems from the high cost of failing to prevent a maternal death and subsequent inaction to protect and support maternal orphans.”

Throughout, they emphasize the critical role of underlying factors, such as poverty and inequitable gender norms in enhancing the health risks faced by women and children alike. The study is the first in a series led by the François-Xavier Bagnoud (FXB) Center for Health and Human Rights program on the Health Rights of Women and Children (HRWC), and supported by the Hansen Project on Maternal and Child Health, both of which are based at the Harvard University School of Public Health. The project aims to document both root causes and long-reaching impacts of maternal and child mortality in order to inform the development of evidence-based policy and advocacy at the national and global levels.