One in every 263 pregnant women experiences a severe maternal medical complication during pregnancy, delivery or the post-natal period, according to the first Irish national audit into the issue.

Major obstetric haemorrhage was the most frequent cause of severe maternal complications.

According to the National Perinatal Epidemiology Centre in Cork, which conducted the study for the year 2011, this means a morbidity rate of 3.8 cases for every 1,000 maternities.

This is similar to findings in a previous Irish study and compares favourably with the most recent audit in Scotland.

The incidence of severe maternal morbidities was disproportionately higher among ethnic minorities and the report said this is important given research that shows ethnic minorities are at an increased risk of maternal death.

NPEC Director Professor Richard Greene said the report highlighted the high quality of maternity care in Ireland when benchmarked internationally.

The perinatal mortality rate (death of the foetus or newborn) among women experiencing severe morbidities was 32.6 deaths per 1,000 births.

This is substantially higher than the national rate, which was recently estimated at 6.6 per 1,000 births.

Prof Greene said the reason for this difference was the fact that the women studied had severe maternal medical complications, resulting in some earlier deliveries.

The rate of peripartum hysterectomy - usually an emergency procedure to save the life of a woman due to persistent bleeding - was similar to international studies.

There were 23 cases in Ireland in 2011 and no clustering of cases found in any one hospital.