For many, the birth of a child is a cause for joy, but it is an experience that instills apprehension in many women in Papua New Guinea (commonly known as PNG). Their fear is understandable — UNICEF estimates that, annually, 580 women die during childbirth in the island nation, equalling one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. Understanding the reasons behind these high rates of maternal mortality in Papua New Guinea is instrumental in implementing solutions to save the lives of new mothers.
4 Key Facts About Maternal Mortality in Papua New Guinea
- Many maternal deaths are entirely preventable. A 2018 report from ChildFund Alliance reported that the majority of mothers in Papua New Guinea who die during or immediately after childbirth suffer from relatively common complications. These include infections like sepsis and severe bleeding, as well as eclampsia, which causes high blood pressure resulting in seizures. Complications can also arise from diseases like malaria and HIV, which are prevalent in the country. Controlling these communicable diseases could have a significant impact on the number of potentially fatal complications during pregnancy.
- Inadequate funding for health care systems. This is one of the most significant challenges that Papua New Guinea is facing, especially in rural areas. With 87% of the population living in remote villages with few transportation options, accessing health services is prohibitively difficult for many, according to a 2017 World Bank report. Many women, having no means of transportation, are forced to walk several kilometers to reach health care facilities, a practice that medical professionals advise against during advanced stages of pregnancy. However, these women have no other option. According to a 2018 ChildFund Australia report, rural health care centers often have no running water and no electricity or ambulances to transport patients. In fact, some health care centers have had to close due to underfunding and staff shortages. An independent health system review also highlights the misuse of health care funding in Papua New Guinea. Citing a study of rural health care expenditures in 2010, evaluators found that “two-thirds of the provinces spent little or nothing on drug and medical supply distribution” and provinces allocated minimal finances to facilitate emergency patient transfers. Rural health care centers at large faced severe underfunding.
- Lack of information is a factor. The topic of sex is a cultural taboo in Papua New Guinea and workshops hosted by James Cook University to educate women from the Pacific Islands and Papua New Guinea found that many of them did not know much about sexual health. The ability to identify sexual and reproductive health issues when they arise is crucial for maintaining positive long-term health outcomes, but the cultural context makes talking about such topics difficult for women. Many women are also misinformed about pregnancy and childbirth. A World Health Organization survey of PNG women shows that the women are aware of the mortality risks during labor, but believe this to be “a normal part of life” and are unaware that maternal mortality is preventable. However, improved access to and higher quality service at health care facilities could be a significant preventative measure against common fatal infections and complications. As it stands, women in rural villages often give birth in temporary structures alongside birth attendants with little formal training or access to equipment, according to ChildFund Alliance.
- Insufficient data for assessments and solutions. A 2019 article published in Sexual and Reproductive Health Matters pointed out how little there is to work with when it comes to in-country surveys and statistics. Data on subjects like adolescent birth rates, breastfeeding and postnatal care is lacking, and the authors point out that this makes it difficult to find effective solutions and assess maternal health progress. The WHO corroborates this finding — it estimates that health care facilities in six provinces of Papua New Guinea do not report more than half of maternal deaths. The actual figure is likely higher as maternal deaths that occur within residences typically go unreported.
Making a Difference
Send Hope Not Flowers is a charitable organization founded in Australia that “aims to help mothers to survive childbirth in the developing world.”
In 2015, it partnered with Living Child to send medical supplies and resources to training programs in villages in Papua New Guinea. Send Hope Not Flowers even secured a grant of $20,000 AUD to supply models for medical personnel in training to work on for a better understanding of how to deal with medical emergencies during childbirth.
The Highlands Foundation tackles maternal mortality in Papua New Guinea by sending volunteers, who include trained medical personnel, to travel to the country to assist staff in looking after patients, and in some cases, train new doctors, nurses and midwives.
The Foundation also provides kits to health workers to provide the necessary care to women during pregnancy and childbirth. These contain essential medical supplies, like thermometers and disposable gloves and masks, which birth attendants can easily transport to remote areas. Access to these supplies is potentially life-saving, especially in areas with no nearby health care facilities.
Maternal mortality in Papua New Guinea is a solvable problem. More detailed research paired with regular and accurate data collection will reveal key areas to focus on and more funding will provide rural areas with better tools and facilities to fight complications and, in some cases, prevent them altogether.
– Abbi Powell
Photo: Wikimedia Commons