New and expectant mothers are dying at levels "not seen for the past 20 years" amid a spike in deaths from suicide, substance misuse, and blood clots.

An expert review shows that, between 2020 and 2022, a total of 272 women in the UK died during pregnancy, childbirth, or in the six weeks after delivery - including miscarriage or stillbirth - for reasons that were directly or indirectly related to childbearing.

This compares to 191 maternal deaths in the three years prior to the pandemic, between 2017 and 2019.

Per 100,000, the maternal mortality rate has increased by 53%.

The Herald: Maternal mortality from direct and indirect causes have climbed sharplyMaternal mortality from direct and indirect causes have climbed sharply (Image: MBRRACE)

The latest figures are the first to cover a full three-year period in which the Covid virus was spreading, with evidence showing that the infection increases the risk of potentially life-threatening complications in pregnancy for mothers and infants.

A total of 38 maternal deaths were recorded between 2020 and 2022 where Covid was the direct cause.

ANALYSIS: Blood clots, Covid, suicide - what's gone wrong with maternal care in UK?

However, even after Covid deaths are excluded, the UK's maternal mortality rate increased by 31% between 2017-2019 and 2020-22.

The suicide rate for mothers during pregnancy or soon after birth was found to have nearly doubled, with 18 cases registered in 2020-22 compared to 10 in the three years prior to the pandemic.

Other psychiatric causes of death - including drug and alcohol misuse - saw a smaller increase, from 10 to 13 cases, while the rate of maternal deaths due to blood clots has increased by 136% from 20 to 44.

The data has been compiled as part of ongoing monitoring by MBRRACE-UK, the expert body that audits maternal and infant mortality.

No Scotland-specific data is currently available, but a full report will be published later this year.

The Herald: Maternal deaths UK 2017-19 versus 2020-22 (*NB: chart should read 'UK', not 'Scotland')Maternal deaths UK 2017-19 versus 2020-22 (*NB: chart should read 'UK', not 'Scotland') (Image: Newsquest/DOT visualisation)

Professor Marian Knight, the maternal reporting lead for MBRRACE and director of the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit, said: "These data show that the UK maternal death rate has returned to levels that we have not seen for the past 20 years.

"The 2023 MBRRACE-UK maternal confidential enquiry report identified clear examples of maternity systems under pressure and this increase in maternal mortality raises further concern.

"Ensuring pre-pregnancy health, including tackling conditions such as overweight and obesity, as well as critical actions to work towards more inclusive and personalised care, need to be prioritised as a matter of urgency now more than ever."

Dr Nicola Vousden, co-chair of the Women’s Health Specialist Interest Group at the Faculty of Public Health, said: "Persisting inequalities by ethnicity and socioeconomic status indicate that we must think beyond maternity care to address the underlying structures that impact health before, during and after pregnancy, such as housing, education and access to healthy environments."