The basics of birth safety

What do women need when birth becomes difficult? The Averting Maternal Death and Disability program has identified a handful of intervention capabilities that should be in place for emergencies wherever babies are born.

These "signal functions" include having personnel on hand who are trained to administer drugs by injection -- antibiotics, anticonvulsants and "oxytocics," which can start or speed labor -- manually remove the placenta and other "products of conception" not leaving the body spontaneously, and perform assisted vaginal delivery -- with forceps, for example.

AMDD, a major initiative of the Mailman School of Public Health at Columbia University in New York City,  has worked with UNICEF and other partners for 20 years to bring down maternal-mortality rates in the developing world.

Its directive, issued in 1997, cites two additional interventions that might be necessary to save lives -- Caesarean section and blood tranfusion. These two go beyond the basics of a birth center -- in some parts of the world they are strictly wish-list items -- but they can often make the difference between life and death, as they did in our case.

AMDD doesn't include anesthesiology in its signal functions, although surgery is difficult without it.

We in the United States might view these interventions as humdrum, or even as irksome or worse if they become part of our own birth story, but behind the development of each one of them are amazing tales.

Forceps/vacuum birth hazard: Asia survey

One big surprise of the WHO survey of Asian births was that "operative vaginal delivery" -- the use of forceps or vacuum -- had the highest death rate for mothers of any method.

Ninety-seven women died during the 108,000 surveyed births. Of those, 53 died during spontaneous vaginal births, as would be expected, given that those were the majority of births (75,000 deliveries), for a rate of less than .1 percent.

However, of 3,465 OVD births, nine mothers died, a rate of nearly .3 percent. In a commentary that accompanied the WHO report in the medical journal The Lancet, the editors called the figures "a sobering reminder of the dangers of operative deliveries," although they noted that most OVDs are "high-risk situations that cannot be easily avoided."

Twenty-three of the 16,500 mothers having Caesaean sections "with indications" during labor died (more than .1 percent), and one woman died of the 554 having elective C-sections during labor (a rate of nearly .2 percent).

The report also found that women undergoing elective Caesarean section were  far more likely to spend time after the birth in intensive care than women whose births were spontaneous.

The irony is that while many unnecessary C-sections are being performed in some areas, women in other areas who desperately need them are not able to get them, the WHO report notes.

Birth in Asia — The WHO survey

The rising rate of birth by Caesarean sections has hit Asia, with China reporting that 46 percent of its births now end in surgery, according to a global survey by the World Health Organization reported in the medical journal The Lancet.

Nine countries were targeted in the WHO study -- Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Vietnam -- with births in both small and large institutions examined for two or three months in the capital city and two other regions in each country. In all, about 108,000 births were scrutinized at 122 institutions.

China had the highest rate of Caesarean births in the survey. The country with the next-highest rate was Vietnam, with 36 percent, followed by Thailand, with 34 percent, and Sri Lanka, with 31 percent.

Cambodia had the lowest rate of Caesarean births, 15 percent, which is the rate the WHO and other health groups recommend. The C-section rate over all for the Asian countries surveyed was 27 percent.