Lead author Saifuddin Ahmed of The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore estimated meeting the global need for contraception could reduce maternal deaths an additional 30 percent.
"Promotion of contraceptive use is an effective primary prevention strategy for reducing maternal mortality in developing countries," Ahmed said in a statement. "Our findings reinforce the need to accelerate access to contraception in countries with a low prevalence of contraceptive use where gains in maternal mortality prevention could be greatest -- vaccination prevents child mortality; contraception prevents maternal mortality."
The researchers used a modeling approach to replicate the World Health Organization's maternal mortality estimation method, and to estimate maternal deaths averted by contraceptive use in 172 countries. Data for the analysis were drawn from the WHO database for maternal mortality estimation, survey data for contraceptive use and information on births, female population ages 15-49.
Worldwide use of contraception averted 272,000 maternal deaths, or 38 deaths per 100,000 women using contraception, the researchers estimated. The estimate is equivalent to a 44 percent reduction in maternal deaths worldwide.
The decline in deaths for individual countries ranged from 7 percent to 61 percent.
The study, published in The Lancet, further estimated that in the absence of contraceptive use the number of maternal deaths would be 1.8 times higher for the study period.