Objective  To audit trends in maternal mortality in the Peninsula Maternal and Neonatal Service (PMNS) over a 50-year period, with respect to rates and patterns of causation.

Design  Retrospective and prospective audit.

Setting  The PMNS, an integrated perinatal service composed of primary, secondary and tertiary facilities in Cape Town.

Population All women giving birth in the area of the Cape Peninsula served by the PMNS over the 50-year period.

Methods  Data on maternal deaths were collected for 1953–2002 inclusive, from annual obstetric and gynaecological reports. Three triennia (1954–1956, 1981–1983 and 1999–2001) were selected for a detailed comparison of trends in rates and causes of death.

Main outcome measures  Maternal mortality rates (MMRs). Causes of maternal deaths.

Results  Total deliveries increased from 7315 in 1953 to 27,575 in 2002. The MMR declined from 301 deaths per 100,000 deliveries in 1953 to 31.2 in the triennium, 1987–1989. From 1999, the MMR increased, reaching 112 in 2002. Comparing 1954–1956 (MMR of 253.9) with 1981–1983 (MMR of 43.8), there was a marked decline in the MMR related to hypertension (80.4 to 11.3), haemorrhage (50.8 to 4.2), abortion (55 to 4.2), suspected pulmonary embolism (25.4 to 2.8), pregnancy-related sepsis (8.5 to 4.2) and cardiac disease (21.2 to 2.8). Comparing 1981–1983 (MMR of 43.8) with 1999–2001 (MMR of 59.4), there was a decline in the MMR associated with abortion (4.2 to 0). The MMR for haemorrhage, suspected pulmonary embolism and cardiac disease remained the same. There was a slight increase in the MMR attributed to hypertension (11.3 to 14.5) and pregnancy-related sepsis (4.2 to 7.3). There was a marked increase in the MMR associated with non-pregnancy-related infections/AIDS (4.2 to 18.2).

Conclusions  The MMR for all causes of maternal death declined significantly from 1953 to 1981 as a result of several interventions. From 1999, there has been a non-significant increase in MMR, predominantly due to the burden of HIV/AIDS-related mortality.