Unlocking a Healthier Future: Maternal Nutrition & Increased Access to Prenatal Multivitamins

ECF Team

A Growing Crisis for Pregnant Women Worldwide

Today, more than one billion women and girls are malnourished. This number has soared in recent years due to the global food crisis, and it has serious implications for women of childbearing age. 

Maternal malnutrition can be deadly. When a woman is malnourished during pregnancy, there can be consequences for her own health – and her baby is at a greater risk of being born underweight, premature, and tragically, may even be stillborn. Being born too small or too soon can pose serious health complications for a newborn.

Each year, more than four million babies die before reaching their first birthday in part because of malnutrition. Additionally, nearly forty percent of pregnant women worldwide suffer from anemia. An anemic woman is more likely to face complications during childbirth and is at increased risk of maternal mortality.

We can no longer overlook this growing maternal and child health crisis – particularly because there are cost-effective solutions that could save lives waiting to be scaled. 

The Power of a Prenatal Vitamin

In high-income countries, doctors and other health experts have long recommended that pregnant women take multivitamins to guard against a range of nutrient deficiencies that can occur during pregnancy. Paradoxically, in low- and middle-income countries, where the prevalence of malnutrition and risk of child mortality is higher, pregnant women receive a supplement containing only two nutrients, iron and folic acid (IFA).

But a better prenatal vitamin exists. Twenty years of research demonstrates that a standard formula multivitamin – known as a multiple micronutrient supplement (MMS) – is as safe and more effective than IFA in preventing a range of life-threatening outcomes at birth. MMS contains fifteen essential nutrients that women need during pregnancy, and the cost per tablet is less than two cents – making it one of the best buys in global health and nutrition.

The Effectiveness of MMS

Three recent literature reviews (Smith, Keats, & Oh) have found MMS to have a similar effect on pregnant women’s anemia as IFA supplements – but with better outcomes in preventing babies from being born too early and too small.

And for women who are pregnant and anemic, the benefits are even greater. When anemic women take MMS rather than IFA, studies show an additional:

  • 19 percent reduction in the prevalence of low birthweight
  • 21 percent reduction in stillbirths
  • 29 percent reduction in 6-month mortality

Getting to Scale

Scaling up MMS will require catalytic investments and donor support to partner with country governments on a range of activities. But the investment will pay off. The Copenhagen Consensus Report estimates an annual benefit of over US$ 3.1 billion through the total number of lives saved and improved.

In 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) updated its antenatal care guidelines with a conditional recommendation for MMS and, in 2021, added MMS to the Essential Medicines List (EML). While WHO continues its review process to update global guidelines, countries are introducing MMS in research settings, and momentum to switch and scale MMS is growing. Nearly 30 countries are currently engaging in implementation research activities as a precursor to future adoption and further scale-up of MMS.  

Women everywhere deserve a healthy pregnancy, and their babies deserve the best start in life. MMS is one of the most powerful and cost-effective tools to improve maternal nutrition and child health. Ensuring that pregnant women — regardless of where they live — have the prenatal vitamins that are best for their health and the health of their children will play a vital role in achieving a world where no child dies from malnutrition.

Image credits: main photo courtesy of Helen Keller Intl; photo of woman with newborn child, © UNFPA / Mozambique


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