Making a difference in maternal mortality

It isn't that childbirth is more inherently dangerous in countries where many women die in childbirth than in those where relatively few die. The women who survive, statistically speaking, are getting appropriate help from trained attendants.

"...The main complications that lead to death during pregnancy or childbirth are fairly common among all women, regardless of where they live," write the authors of an article titled "Are We Making Progress in Maternal Mortality?" in the May 26 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.Pregnant Graffiti

Hemorrhage, which most often occurs right after birth, is the leading cause of pregnancy-related deaths globally, accounting for 35 percent of all deaths in childbirth, according to the World Health Organization. And in fact, hemorrhage was the second most common complication seen in pregnancies in the United States in 2000.

However, most U.S. women who suffered hemorrhage were treated quickly, and survived, say the article's authors, Anne Paxton and Tessa Wardlaw.

WHO identified the second most common cause of maternal death as hypertensive disorders — pre-eclampsia/eclampsia, for example. Again, these disorders are a common problem all over the world, but women with access to good medical care have a good chance of surviving them.

The countries that are most dangerous for pregnant women are those suffering through wars, or burdened with a large population with HIV/AIDS, the authors write.

In general, poor women die in childbirth more often than affluent ones, rural women more often than urban ones. These populations are more vulnerable because they often deliver their babies without the benefit of skilled birth attendants, and lack access to obstetrical services like surgery by Cesarean section.

Sub-Saharan Africa, with widespread political unrest and HIV/AIDS infection, "has the greatest burden of maternal mortality," even though most countries there are seeing "small but promising" decreases in pregnancy-related deaths.

Worldwide, there is considerable cause for hope, Paxton and Wardlaw write. Maternal mortality has decreased globally by more than one-third since 1990, according to United Nations estimates.

"Dramatic improvements in China and other Asian countries...are associated with economic improvement, decreasing fertility rates and strengthening of health systems...," the authors write.

"The overall rate of decline in global maternal mortality, 2.3 percent, is lower than the 5.5 percent MDG target but is heartening nonetheless," they write.

Image: "Pregnant Graffiti" by Petteri Sulonen


Priority medicines for mothers and children

The World Health Organization has published a list of 30 medicines that can make the difference between life and death for mothers and children younger than 5 years of age.

This list of "priority medicines" was developed by the WHO, the United Nations Population Fund and UNICEF. It is the first such list, the sine qua non for mothers and children regardless of where they are , according to an editorial in the Lancet. (This list should not be confused with WHO's Model List of Essential Medicines.)

"An estimated 8.1 million children under the age of five die every year and an estimated 1,000 women — most of them in developing countries — die every day due to complications during pregnancy or childbirth," states the introduction to the list.

The new publication is something of a "wish list," the Lancet notes, in that five of the medicines to protect young children have not yet been developed.

These are the generic treatments on the list that address conditions that threaten the lives of mothers:

* For post-partum hemorrhage — oxytocin and sodium chloride

* For pre-eclampsia and eclampsia — calcium gluconate injection (for treatment of magnesium toxicity), magnesium sulfate

* For puerperal infection —  ampicillin, metronidasole, gentamicin, misoprostol

* For sexually transmitted diseases — azithromycin for chlamydia, cefixime and, for syphillis, benzathine benzylpenicillin

Malawi eases rule on birth attendants

The African nation of Malawi will take a new tack in its campaign to improve its maternal-mortality statistics.

Almost immediately after his return from the United Nations meeting in New York on the Millennium Development Goals, President Bingu wa Mutharika lifted a ban on traditional birth attendants.

The fifth MDG is to cut the number of women who die in childbirth worldwide by 75 percent by the year 2015. Malawi, along with a number of other countries, has experienced disappointing progress on Goal 5.

Malawi shares Africa's dismal statistics on maternal mortality; a mother's lifetime chance of dying in childbirth there is 1 in 36, according to the latest figures from the World Health Organization. (HIV/AIDS is a major factor in Malawi.) Not only that, but decreases in the rate of deaths, presently 510 per 100,000 births, have only been running about 3 percent per year since 1990.

Banning TBAs was part of an earlier effort to get more women to deliver their babies with assistants trained in modern medical techniques, who would be able to recognize and respond to emergencies. Only 54 percent of Malawi women delivered their babies in a health-care facility in 2005.

However, one result of the ban has been that more women have delivered their babies without any kind of real birth attendant, traditional or modern, or with TBAs working under the threat of fines.

Dorothy Ngoma, executive director of the National Organization of Nurses and Midwives in Malawi, told The Nation, a daily newspaper in Malawi, "They [TBAs] never really stopped.... What happened is that they went underground."

It appears that President Mutharika decided after the UN summit that training TBAs to be part of the solution made more sense. The president married Callista Chimombo last spring, and the new first lady appears to be taking an active role in addressing the country's poverty.

The Nation reported that her Safe Motherhood Foundation will train 20 TBAs from the countryside next year in modern birth methods. They will then return to serve their communities as midwives.

Healthcare facilities tend to be concentrated in Malawi's cities, while 70 percent of the nation's 15 million people live in rural areas. There are reportedly two doctors for every 100,000 Malawians.

"We should not abandon TBAs, as they are very important to our program of safe motherhood," President Mutharika was quoted as saying in The Nation.

How hospitals can promote breast-feeding

The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, an international program, has created a list of things birth facilities in the United States can do to optimize the chances that mothers will choose to breast-feed their babies.

Here are "The Ten Steps To Successful Breast-feeding," from BFHI USA:

    1. Have a written breast-feeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health-care staff.
    2. Train all health-care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.
    3. Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breast-feeding.
    4. Help mothers initiate breast-feeding within one hour of birth.
    5. Show mothers how to breast-feed and how to maintain lactation, even if they are separated from their infants.
    6. Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breast milk, unless medically indicated.
    7. Practice “rooming in” — allow mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day.
    8. Encourage breast-feeding on demand.
    9. Give no pacifiers or artificial nipples to breast-feeding infants.
    10. Foster the establishment of breast-feeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from the hospital or clinic.

The BFHI is underwritten by the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).

Clearing the first hurdle in breast-feeding

Fewer than 4 percent of births in the United States occur at facilities that are considered "baby friendly," according to the latest Breast-feeding Report Card, issued this week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.Happy baby

That's interesting, in light of the fact that birth is the one point at which the nation's breast-feeding practices actually meet the goals set by Healthy People 2010.

And, it raises some questions: Are American women determined to breast-feed even in the teeth of an unsupportive environment? Or does strong support from the hospital not matter much in their decision? Do problems caused by settings where breast-feeding is not actively promoted only show up later?

Or are environments that come after the birth facility, including families, other medical advisers, child-care centers and workplaces, even less sympathetic to breast-feeding?

Only two hospitals in Illinois, my home state, are among the 99 "baby friendly" facilities recognized by the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative as providing "an optimal level of care for infant feeding." These are Pekin Hospital in Pekin and St. John's Hospital in Springfield.

Thirty of the hospitals on the list are in California.

"Although the hospital is not and should not be the only place a mother receives support for breastfeeding, hospitals provide a unique and critical link between the breastfeeding support provided prior to and after delivery," the BFHI's website states.

The BFHI is a joint global effort of the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).