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Skilled Community Workers in Africa Save Mothers and Babies

February 1, 2013 7 minute Read by Eric G. Bing

Sidi Kitzao lay in pain, exhausted, on the floor of her home in a rural area near Malindi, a coastal village in Kenya. She had been in labor for more than 20 hours.  She wondered why this birth was so much more difficult than her previous one.  Maybe it was because her husband had been by her side back then.  But after a roadside accident made her a widow at 24, with a set of twins at home and a baby on the way, all of life seemed different. After his death, she received aid from the Caris Family Foundation, an international NGO focused on helping single mothers develop health and business skills.  Entrepreneurial by nature and now even more motivated, she began mastering the skills and dreaming of opening a small daycare center, after the baby was born. But for now, her only desire was to end the pain. This baby seemed way too big.  So much bigger, she thought, than her twins – combined.  Maybe she shouldn’t have listened to the Caris community workers and gone in for prenatal care.  Maybe the supplements they’d given her and healthier food she was eating had made the baby too big for her small body to handle. The Caris workers had urged her to call a Tuk Tuk, a 3-wheeled motorized taxi, to go to the hospital as soon as the labor pains set in.  But she ignored them, and, like most of the women in her village, when her time came she summoned the traditional birth attendant and prepared to give birth at home. Knowing that her time was due, the Caris workers stopped by to check on her.  And that’s when they found her on the ground, nearly unconscious.  Over the objection of the traditional birth attendant, they loaded Sidi’s limp body into the waiting vehicle and, as they were trained, they rushed her to the hospital. As soon as she arrived, she was whisked away and after an emergency C-section, she delivered another set of twins, a boy and a girl.  This time only one survived – the girl. But through the experience, something new was born in Sidi.  She became a community organizer, taking the lessons she learned through Caris, and created self-help groups for women.  A year later, she fulfilled her dream and started the community’s first nursery school; helping others while helping herself. Every minute a woman dies of pregnancy or delivery complications in the world.  Every six seconds a baby less than a year old dies.  Nearly every time they are living in a country like Kenya, in a village like Malindi, in a home like Sidi’s. When I met Sidi and her daughter and heard their story, I was struck by how much things had improved for some women in the two decades since I began working in developing countries.  Yes, a baby had died.  But this time, due to the quick thinking of well trained community workers, two lives were saved and a community is being transformed. Over the past 20 years, both maternal mortality and mortality for children under five have decreased 35%.  This is largely due to increased access to prenatal care, an emphasis on giving birth under the supervision of skilled health providers, as well as other efforts.  Programs like the Caris program that focuses on education for pregnant women and getting them into early prenatal care are an essential part of this success. The ready availability of cell phones and other new initiatives will hopefully help accelerate this change.  Of the 5 billion mobile phones in the world, 80% of them are in emerging economies or developing countries.  Building upon this, MAMA (Mobile Alliance for Maternal Action), is designed to harness the power of mobile technology. MAMA is a public private partnership with USAID and Johnson & Johnson, with support from the United Nations Foundation, mHealth Alliance and BabyCenter LLC.  MAMA’s goal is to disseminate information that will educate women in ways to care for themselves during pregnancy, dispel myths and misconceptions, identify warning signals, connect women with prenatal care, reinforce the benefits of breast feeding, explain the advantages of family planning, as well as educate new moms on ways to best care for their babies.  Similarly, Saving Mothers, Giving Life, is a public private partnership among the US Government, Merck, the Government of Norway, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Every Mother Counts designed to cut maternal mortality in places where women and their babies die far too frequently. At the Bush Institute, we believe that all women deserve to lead healthy and productive lives.  Healthy women create healthy families and communities that are able learn, grow and contribute to a healthy, prosperous and free world. We are committed to help stimulate sustainable health solutions for women in developing countries and have partnered with PEPFAR, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, UNAIDS, Caris Family Foundation and others in the new Pink Ribbon Red Ribbon initiative to save women from cervical cancer.  We are committed to supporting women entrepreneurs , so that women can create opportunities for themselves and others.  Healthy women with opportunities to grow and prosper will create healthy families, communities and nations. We believe that with these commitments along with innovative thinking, entrepreneurial actions and effective partnerships, these aspirations can become a reality. This post was written by Eric G. Bing, Director of Global Health at the George W. Bush Institute. 

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