Upon learning they are pregnant, most women do not immediately wonder if it’s a fatal diagnosis. However, that is the stark reality for many women in developing countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Maternal mortality in Africa is a pervasive and devastating issue. Far hospitals, scarce doctors and poor healthcare systems all contribute to maternal mortality. Most maternal deaths are preventable and caused by complications treatable in developed nations. It is important to recognize the causes of maternal death and solutions already in place to further reduce maternal mortality in Africa.
Causes of Maternal Mortality
The most common causes of maternal mortality are severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure during pregnancy, delivery complications and unsafe abortions. In most cases, these are treatable with access to trained medical staff and proper medication. Access to maternal health care varies around the world. “A 5-year-old girl living in sub-Saharan Africa faces a 1 in 40 risk of dying during pregnancy and childbirth during her lifetime. A girl of the same age living in Europe has a lifetime risk of 1 in 3,300,” according to Dr. Greeta Rao Gupta, deputy executive director of UNICEF. Factors such as “poverty, distance, lack of information, inadequate services, [and] cultural practices” prevent women from having access to the proper medical services they need.
Additionally, warfare in developing countries causes the breakdown of healthcare systems. This further prevents women from accessing life-saving medical care. For example, when the 11-year civil war in Sierra Leone ended in 2002, it left less than 300 trained doctors and three obstetricians to treat the country’s 6 million people.
Solutions to Reduce Maternal Mortality
Many NGOs work throughout the region to combat maternal mortality in Africa. In fact, the United Nations initiated the Global Strategy for Women’s, Children’s and Adolescents’ Health, 2016-2030. Their goal is to “reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births” by 2030.
According to a study by the World Health Organization, there needs to be better documentation of maternal mortality in Africa to create more effective policy solutions. Currently, less than 40 percent of countries have a registration system documenting the causes of maternal mortality. Hence, this lack of information makes it difficult for the U.N. and NGOs to create effective solutions.
An unexpected yet effective way maternal mortality in Africa has been combated is through photography. Pulitzer-prize winning war correspondent Lynsey Addario took her camera to the region to document maternal mortality. Addario documented the experiences of many women, including 18-year-old Mamma Sessay in Sierra Leone. Sessay traveled for hours by canoe and ambulance while in excruciating labor to reach her nearest hospital. Addario stayed with Sessay for the entire experience, from the birth of her child to her subsequent hemorrhage and death. Addario even traveled with Sessay’s family back to their village to document Sessay’s funeral and her family’s grief.
Ultimately, TIME published Addario’s photographs. And as a result, Merck launched Merck for Mothers, giving $500 million to reduce maternal mortality rates worldwide. Addario stated, “I just couldn’t believe how unnecessary her death seemed, and it inspired me to continue documenting maternal health and death to try to turn these statistics around.”
The Bottom Line
The international community must continue to address maternal mortality, a preventable tragedy. No woman should have to fear for her own life or the life of her unborn child upon discovering she is pregnant. Through documentation, reporting and care, the international community can fight to reduce maternal mortality in Africa.
– Alina Patrick