On January 28th, Half the Sky organized a Google+ Hangout on maternal health. The panelists were Edna Adan, founder of Edna Adan’s Maternity Hospital; Kate Grant, CEO of The Fistula Foundation and Christy Turlington-Burns, founder of Every Mother Counts. The panel was moderated by journalist and documentary filmmaker Perri Peltz.
“Why are we doing a Hangout about maternal health?” Peltz began, articulating the question that, perhaps, some of the 270 viewers were asking themselves. “The truth of the matter is it’s a topic that deserves a lot of attention … every two minutes a woman dies of pregnancy-related complications. Now that’s about 800 women every single day or about 287,000 women a year who die because of pregnancy-related complications and most of those deaths could have been prevented with proven interventions. Now, that is a topic that certainly deserves our attention today.”
The bulk of the Hangout, which lasted nearly 40 minutes, focused on obstetric fistula. As the CEO of The Fistula Foundation, Grant was most vocal about this topic. She acknowledged that there is great ignorance about this issue amongst the general public and briefly defined fistula as a small hole created by obstructed labor that renders women incontinent but that can be repaired through surgery. The Fistula Foundation works to raise awareness about this issue and to raise funds for fistula repair but what Grant stressed is that obstetric fistula can often be prevented.
The panel agreed that while obstructed labor occurs all across the world (Grant and Turlington-Burns both admitted that they had suffered obstructed labor in the delivery of their own children) that there are preventable factors that contribute to the disproportionate number of obstetric fistula in Sub-Saharan Africa.
According to Turlington-Burns, mothers who suffer obstructed labor and develop fistulas are often young girls with underdeveloped bodies. Her organization, Every Mother Counts, encourages young girls to stay in school. “If a girl stays in school longer, throughout secondary education, for example, the likelihood of her delaying marriage and her first pregnancy is hugely impacted,” she said. “In addition to that we have to look at nutrition, too. A lot of these young women … who are having obstetric fistula have been malnourished their entire lives and so they don’t properly develop ever.”
The importance of easy access to an emergency surgeon cannot be stressed enough. Adan’s maternity hospital trains midwives. Part of the role of a midwife, according to Adan, is to be able to tell when labor is obstructed so that the mother can be brought to a surgeon for a cesarean before damage is done to the mother or the baby.
Female genital mutilation also contributes to obstructed labor and, therefore, to obstetric fistula. Adan witnesses the consequences of this practice at her maternity hospital. The scar tissue left by the mutilation can hinder the progress of a natural birth and lead to obstruction. “Female genital mutilation has no place in this day and age,” she said, “It is a harmful procedure that should be done away with and I will talk about it until I’m blue in the face. I’m glad that the UN has passed a resolution [to ban FGM] but then there is no place for complacency.”
As the hangout drew to a close, the panelists were asked what American viewers could do to make a difference with issues like maternal mortality, obstetric fistula and FGM.
“I’d say the first thing is maybe the easiest: being aware that there’s a problem,” Grant said. The Fistula Foundation website provides links that can be sent via social media to family and friends to help spread awareness. The website also includes a Circle of Friends program. “We really leave it up to individual donors to get involved in ways they want.”
She also encouraged people to watch the documentary, A Walk to Beauty, which follows the lives of 5 women with obstetric fistula, which is available online for free.
Despite the work that has yet to be done, progress is being made in the crusade for maternal care. Edna Adan’s Maternity Hospital alone has cut the maternal mortality rate in Somaliland to ¼ the national average. Adan and her fellow panelists stress the hope that each success story brings them.
“One of the most rewarding things,” Adan said, “Is when we have a woman who comes in with a fistula and who is repaired and goes home and heals and goes back to her husband and a year or two later comes back to us pregnant with a healthy baby and we can do a cesarean section and place that baby in the arms of that mother who never thought she would have a normal life again; who never thought she would ever be happy again … that is one of the greatest gifts in life.”
Image courtesy of hdptcar on Flickr