July 2, 2012 • 5:01 pm

“Pregnancy is the biggest killer of teenage girls worldwide, a charity has said.”

Daily Mail, 27 June 2012

“Pregnancy and childbirth kill more teenagers than anything else, a report shows.”

Metro, 27 June 2012

Last week the Daily Mail and the Metro reported some startling figures – globally, pregnancy (or maternity-related causes) supposedly accounts for more female teenage deaths than any other cause.

The articles were reporting claims made in a recent publication by Save the Children investigating the effects of family planning on people’s lives.

Analysis

Looking at the Save the Children report, it isn’t difficult to find the claim made in full early on:

The report uses the 2012 edition of UNICEF’s ‘Progress for children: a report card for adolescents‘ as a source.

Page 19 of the UNICEF report states:

“Complications related to pregnancy and childbirth account for the deaths of some 50,000 adolescent girls each year and are among the leading causes of death in girls of this age group.”

A footnote for this sentence cites a paper called ‘Global patterns of mortality in young people: a statistical analysis of population health data‘, which was published in the Lancet 2009, along with ‘Mortality estimates by cause, age, and sex for the year 2008′, published by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 2011.

The Lancet paper itself is sourced from WHO data, so it’s worth looking through this to see whether the UNICEF simply relied on it rather than going through the somewhat cumbersome WHO mortality database itself.

The Lancet paper does indeed claim that maternal conditions were a leading cause of death in women (without defining an age range) at some 15 per cent of all deaths to women.

While the tables illustrating the data don’t seem to clearly show where this 15 per cent came from, the paper’s lead author, Professor George Patton of the Centre for Adolescent Health at Melbourne’s Royal Children’s Hospital, was able to confirm to us that the figure is accurate for 15-19 year-olds according to the WHO data which they collected.

However, Professor Patton also reminded us that the data itself is not devoid of problems. In his own words:

“There are significant problems with mortality data in that those parts of the globe with the highest mortality, and the highest maternal mortality, almost have no death registers. So the caveat on all of this are the uncertainty limits that a [sic] quite large for any of the estimates.”

These concerns are also voiced in the Lancet paper itself.

In other words, while we’re able to confirm that the claim that maternity-related conditions is the top cause of mortality in 15-19 year old females, with the rate being around 15 per cent, it comes with a health warning as the data is not totally reliable across the whole world.

This is not to the discredit of the WHO, to the Lancet paper, to UNICEF, to Save the Children or to the news organisations which reported this data – but it’s still worth pointing out that while the claim that pregnancy is the top killer of 15-19 year old females is founded, we can’t necessarily trust all the data it is based on.

Conclusions

The available data indicates pregnancy is indeed the top killer of teenage girls with a reasonable degree of certainty - Professor Patton has been able to confirm to us that the 50,000 figure for deaths is at least in the right ballpark. 

Whatever the case may be, Save the Children have stated the case about as accurately as is possible, as far as we have been able to tell, and the news outlets which picked it up reported it about as accurately as can be expected.

With all that said, it’s worth pointing out that the Metro’s print headline (“Giving birth is no.1 killer of teenagers across world”) and online headline (“Childbirth is the number one killer of teenagers”) are imprecise.

The Save the Children report claims that it is “pregnancy and childbirth” which is the killer – not the act of actually giving birth. Professor Patton confirmed to us that what is being looked at isn’t birth, but maternal mortality. 

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