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Birth in a Time of Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria

In high-income countries, maternal and infant mortality is now rare, owing to a century of health-care improvements, including the availability of antibiotics after 1934. But antibiotics have been overused, and mothers and infants in poor countries are at the highest risk from antibiotic-resistant microbes.

GENEVA/NEW YORK – King Henry VIII, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein, all lost their mothers to infections following childbirth, and literature abounds with tragic stories of maternal death, from A Christmas Carol to Wuthering Heights, Far From the Madding Crowd, A Farewell to Arms, Revolutionary Road, Lolita, and Harry Potter.

But maternal and infant mortality is not confined to the past, much less to fiction. More than 30,000 women and 400,000 newborns die each year from infections around the time of birth. Most of these deaths occur in low-income countries, and the situation will only worsen as the antibiotics available for treating infections become less effective, owing to the emergence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

According to current estimates, more than 200,000 newborns die each year from infections that do not respond to available drugs. And studies using data from larger hospitals – where microbes are more likely to develop antibiotic resistance – estimate that about 40% of infections in newborns resist standard treatments.

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