“It is one of the world's greatest hidden epidemics, but the search for a solution is hopelessly underfunded. On average, every minute of every day a woman somewhere dies in childbirth or pregnancy, the overwhelming majority in developing countries. It is estimated that they number more than half a million every year, in what Norway's Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, told the United Nations last week was 'the biggest expression of brutality to women I can imagine'.”
So begins a report in the UK Observer on the failure of the global community to make any headway on the UN Millennium Goal of lowering maternal mortality by three-quarters by 2015. “Despite two decades of effort the world failed to make a dent,” said World Health Organisation chief Margaret Chan, addressing a high-level UN task force. “The number of maternal deaths will not go down until more women have access to skilled attendants at birth and to emergency obstetric care,” Chan added.
Almost 99 per cent of maternal deaths occur in the developing world, depriving countless children of a mother and often destroying family life. One in seven women in Niger will ultimately die of pregnancy-related causes, in stark contrast with Sweden where the lifetime risk is one in 17,400. Deaths relating to obstructed labour, eclampsia, severe bleeding, anaemia and infection are often avoidable through simple measures, such as provision of better pre-natal care and primary health facilities with trained staff. Although in a country such as Sierra Leone official government policy is to provide this care free, this is far from the reality on the ground.
The UN task force, which includes the British Prime Minister, the French Foreign Minister and World Bank president Robert Zoellick, is calling for billions more dollars in aid, although Mr Zoellick expressed concern about the impact of the global financial meltdown on the Millennium Development Goals.
One can’t help thinking, too, about the billions of dollars already spent on promoting birth control in the developing countries instead of on maternal care, and the ambivalence of the developed world towards the fertility of poor and dark-skinned women. If maternal health had been the focus of services to women over the past four decades instead of “reproductive health”, how different things might look now. ~ Observer, Sep 28