Perilous pregnancies: How to improve maternal health in Tanzania?


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Let's think together: Every Sunday the World Bank in Tanzania in collaboration with The Citizen wants to stimulate your thinking by sharing data from recent official surveys in Tanzania and ask you a few questions.

Pregnancy and childbirth can be a tremendously exciting time for a family if the expectant mother and her unborn child benefit from quality medical services and the baby is delivered in a safe environment. 

However, it can also be a traumatizing experience if the mother loses her life during childbirth or if the newborn is sick or dies. 

In Tanzania many mothers and mothers-to-be are dying young and unnecessarily as illustrated by the following statistics:

  • Tanzania’s maternal mortality ratio is estimated at 460 deaths per 100,000 live births (in 2010); 8,500 women are dying every year because of pregnancy or childbirth.
  • Maternal mortality has declined since 2005 (from around 610 deaths per 100,000 live births), but progress has been much slower than with child mortality.
  • Tanzania’s maternal mortality ratio also appears high compared to other countries, such as India (200), Kenya (360), Ethiopia (350) or Senegal (370).

    The broader problems caused by poor reproductive health are far greater than what is suggested by these mortality statistics.  For every maternal death, many more women suffer from pregnancy- or childbirth-related impairments, often with long-term negative impacts on their health and labor force participation. And of course, maternal health is closely linked to the wellbeing of newborn children.

    A major factor behind the high levels of maternal mortality in Tanzania is the insufficient utilization of reproductive healthcare services:
  • While the World Health Organization recommends that pregnant women (without complications) should have at least four visits to an antenatal care provider, 57 per cent of Tanzanian women had fewer visits in 2010.
  • 56 per cent of rural and 17 per cent of urban births were delivered at home, rendering advanced medical treatment difficult to access in case of complications.  In the poorest quintile almost two-thirds of births occurred at home.
  • In 2010 alone, around 900,000 births (49 per cent) were not attended by a skilled provider: 15 per cent of births were attended only by a traditional birth attendant, 29 per cent were attended only by relatives or friends and just above 3 per cent of births (more than 60,000) were delivered without any assistance.

    This underutilization of reproductive health services is related to poor accessibility and the cost associated with seeking care.  Another yet related reason is the poor quality of reproductive health services.  In 2010, only around half of the women (53 per cent) who received antenatal care were informed about potential pregnancy complications.  Unlike healthcare needs of children, which are often addressed through large-scale immunization campaigns and other ‘vertical’ programs, reproductive healthcare needs are addressed through the general healthcare system, which suffers from the well-known problems of weak staff incentives, poor accountability and inadequate service delivery. 

    All of this raises the following questions:
  • What are the most important factors deterring women from seeking antenatal care and delivering their babies at hospitals? Distance? Road infrastructure? Cost?  Poor quality of service?
  • Can better education for girls reduce maternal mortality?  Or would it be more effective to offer expectant mothers financial incentive to seek pre- and post-natal care?
  • How can the quality of maternal health services be improved?  Through incentive-based pay for healthcare personnel?  Better equipped facilities?
  • Is maternal health mainly the responsibility of the women themselves?  What is the role of their husbands?
  • Should Government step up family planning programs to further reduce fertility and the risk of mothers dying during childbirth?

    Note: The statistics above are based on the 2010 Demographic and Health Survey and the World Bank’s Gender Statistics Database.  Data from these sources are publicly available and results can be replicated.


Jacques Morisset

Lead Economist and Program Leader for Cote d’Ivoire

Join the Conversation

Find a Doctor
January 15, 2013

Statistically, maternal mortality contributes to only 2.3 per cent of the total mortality. Still births make up 6.7 per cent of total mortality. There are also causes of mortality that are related to poor health including malnutrition. Over half of expectant women deliver at home and not at health facilities and as such may not be attended by skilled personnel or have access to Emergency Obstetrics Care (EmOC). Most recent DHS (DHS 2010) data show that maternal mortality situation has improved somewhat from a deteriorating trend observed in the mid 2000s in Tanzania.

Luc Lapointe
January 15, 2013

Dear Isis!

Very interesting statistics but I believe that the solutions for all the questions you have raise lie in "How will this be sustainable?" I just read yesterday about a new program of the UK on this topic. The Making It Happen programme will help doctors and professional to travel to Tanzania to do some capacity building with local staff.

....but that doesn't address the other points that you raised such as infrastructures, roads, affordability, and sustainability. Let's just imagine that you could address the above mentioned ...the impact for any health interventions can only be improved if you have similar investment in education, housing, nutrition, access to water, to name a few. The problem remains the silo approach to intervention(s).

Tanzania recently changed their visa requirements ..if you come as a tourist you pay $100 but if you declare yourself as a volunteer you need to pay $550. This is forcing many of the organizations to go underground...which, as you can imagine, complicates the landscape when it comes to aid transparency/effectiveness.

To's impossible to get this data from the government of we do not know if the new visa program is successful or if it's driving more people underground.

Since you are on location...I would be interested to ask you a few more questions. I can't wait to see how the UK program will address this visa requirements. This is an interesting "tax" since it needs to be renewed every 90 days.

Luc Lapointe

August 01, 2013

Health care service would be developed in the recent years as several people are getting different types of health facilities under different health care reform programs. Therefore especially in rural regions we have found the instant result of health care system in a positive way and it rapidly increases to deliver quality health care results to the people. Here in Tanzania we have found people are suffering from horrible health care issues due to lack of proper and quality health care service therefore women are suffering from maternal health issues and we can get beneficial steps from here in the developing process of health care system especially in Tanzania.