Maternal deaths are falling for the first time in a decade primarily because of the government’s increased provision of AIDS drugs, according to research by the Department of Health.

The National Committee for the Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths found that the institutional maternal mortality ratio fell almost 16% year on year to 156.5 per 100,000 live births last year. This was down from 186 per 100,000 in 2010 and 189 per 100,000 in 2009.

The total number of institutional maternal deaths — which include women who die during pregnancy, labour or within 42 days of childbirth — was 1,466 last year, down from 1,646 in 2010 and 1,766 in 2009. These preliminary findings are broadly consistent with a report the Medical Research Council (MRC) published in October.

The MRC found that AIDS drugs had led to significant improvements in life expectancy, and infant and child mortality between 2009 and last year.

"It is good news," said Yogan Pillay, the Department of Health’s deputy director-general for HIV, tuberculosis and maternal and child health. "The key thing that changed is that in April 2010 we changed the eligibility criteria for pregnant women to get AIDS drugs and put them on treatment earlier."

Maternal deaths attributed to nonpregnancy-related infections such as pneumonia and tuberculosis, which are largely because of HIV, fell to 191.6 per 100,000 live births last year, down from 267 per 100,000 live births for 2008-10.

Despite these improvements, it was unlikely that South Africa would meet its commitments to the United Nations Millennium Development Goal of reducing maternal mortality by three quarters between 1990 and 2015.

But Dr Pillay said the government was determined to reduce maternal deaths. "Our target still remains (the millennium goals). It may not be possible in many places, but we have not given up ."

University of Cape Town demographer Rob Dorrington said the committee’s reports did not reflect the full picture of maternal deaths in South Africa. It only collected information on women who died in hospitals and community health centres.

Southern African HIV Clinicians’ Society president Francesca Conradie said the committee’s interim report showed that maternal deaths were now more a result of poor obstetrical practices than HIV infection. HIV-positive pregnant women had previously been neglected in South Africa’s drive to protect babies from infection.