A 2-year retrospective study of the aetiology of all maternal deaths occurring at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH), Lusaka, Zambia between 1 January 1996 and 31 December 1997. This data was compared with data collected and analyzed between 1974 and 1989. Of the 251 maternal deaths, 42% were due to direct (obstetric) causes and 58% were due to indirect (non-obstetric) causes. Malaria (30%), tuberculosis (25%) and unspecified chronic respiratory tract infections (22%) accounted for 77% of non-obstetric causes of maternal deaths and 44% of all causes of maternal deaths. The diagnosis of AIDS was closely linked with that of tuberculosis (92% of cases), and unspecified chronic respiratory illnesses (97%), but not with malaria (37%). The maternal mortality ratio for UTH was calculated at 921 per 100 000 live births, a significant increase from the 118 noted in 1982 and 667 in 1989.Despite improved obstetric services, the maternal mortality ratios at UTH, Lusaka have increased eight-fold over the past two decades. This dramatic increase is mainly due to non-obstetric causes of death. Malaria and AIDS-associated tuberculosis and unspecified ‘chronic respiratory illnesses’ are now major causes of maternal death in Zambia. Greater emphasis is urgently required on early detection, accurate diagnosis, treatment and prevention of malaria and tuberculosis in pregnancy.