Despite medical advances and increasing access to improved obstetric care across the globe, surgical childbirths are still more risky for both mother and baby, according to an ongoing international survey by the World Health Organization (WHO).

A new report from the survey, which was published online today in the medical journal The Lancet, found that in Asia—in both developed and developing nations—cesarean section births only reduced risks of major complications for mother and child if they were medically recommended. Elected surgical deliveries, on the other hand, put both at greater risk.

"Cesarean section should be done only when there is a medical indication to improve the outcome for the mother or the baby," the authors of the report concluded. Common reasons for a recommendation for cesarean delivery included a previous cesarean section, cephalopelvic disproportion (when the baby's head cannot fit through the mother's pelvic opening) and fetal distress.

In the nine countries studied (Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Nepal, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Vietnam), more than a quarter of the 107,950 births analyzed (27.3 percent) were C-sections, and in China, which had the highest rate of operations, nearly half (46.2 percent) of the births in the survey were cesarean. With these surgeries comes increased risk of maternal death, infant death, admission into an intensive care unit, blood transfusion, hysterectomy or internal iliac artery ligation (to control bleeding in the pelvis) compared to spontaneous vaginal delivery, according to the report.

But these risks have not necessarily been absorbed into popular, or even medical culture. The rates of cesarean section procedures are on the rise in many countries across the globe, the authors report, and in some countries they "have reached epidemic proportions." Among the nations studied, China had the highest rate of cesarean sections that were performed without medical indication—11.7 percent; the overall rate for the facilities studied had a rate of 1.9 percent.

Most cesarean sections (15.8 percent of births) were begun during labor, as opposed to before it starts. But these later procedures—both elected (0.5 percent) and medically required (15.3 percent)—also carry the most risks for adverse outcomes, the authors found.

In a commentary accompanying the report, Yap-Seng Chong of the National University of Medicine in Singapore and Kenneth Y C Kwek of the KK Women's and Children's Hospital also in Singapore call the results "surprising and chilling." The findings, they say "should help us to prioritize our strategies to reduce unnecessary interventions in childbirth," they wrote. "There is little wrong with medical interventions when indicated, but for those who are still inclined to consider caesarean delivery a harmless option, they need to take a cold hard look at the evidence against unnecessary cesarean section."

The investigators were able to analyze some 96 percent of the births reported in the 122 hospitals that participated in the survey over two to three months between 2007 and 2008. Facilities were located in the capital city of each country and two randomly chosen regions. To qualify for the survey, hospitals had to be delivering at least 1,000 babies a year and performing cesarean surgeries, so as the authors noted, "the results therefore cannot be generalized to smaller facilities" or to the countries overall.

Despite the increased risks associated with cesarean deliveries, no mothers or babies in the study died after an elected cesarean before hospital release. The most dangerous form of childbirth proved to be vaginal operative delivery, which includes using forceps or a vacuum to assist in delivery and is more rare, occurring in just 3.2 percent of the births analyzed.

The findings confirm a previous WHO report published in 2006 in The Lancet, analyzing the rates and safety of various childbirth approaches in Latin America, where the investigators found that "increasing rates of cesarean section do not necessarily lead to improved outcomes and could be associated with harm." Taking the two reports together, the authors concluded, lends "strong multiregional support for the recommendation of avoiding unnecessary cesarean sections."

Surgical childbirth also requires more resources than a natural vaginal delivery, the authors note. Especially in countries where money, medical practitioners or proper equipment is more limited, unnecessary cesarean sections can drain resources away from those cases in which it can improve the chances of a healthy mother and baby.

Image of cesarean surgery team at work courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/Bobjgaliando