By Andrew Weeks and Shafia Rashid
Andrew Weeks is Professor of Women’s and Children’s Health at the University of Liverpool and the Principal Investigator of the MamaMiso study. Shafia Rashid is a senior program officer at Family Care International (FCI). Through research and advocacy, FCI works with Gynuity Health Projects and other partners to support increased access to and availability of misoprostol for prevention and treatment of postpartum hemorrhage.
Sarah Nerima was working on her banana plantation when she went into labor. Unable to reach a health center – the nearest was 6 miles away – Sarah gave birth in the fields, attended only by her mother-in-law. Already a mother of two, she had bled heavily in each of her previous deliveries, and she was afraid that a hemorrhage could take her life, leaving three motherless children.
For the 50% of women in rural Uganda who, like Sarah, give birth outside a health facility, a simple, safe and effective medicine, called misoprostol, can prevent or stop life-threatening bleeding. Misoprostol is a medicine that comes in tablet form, can be stored without refrigeration, and be administered without any specialized skills. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends misoprostol for the prevention and treatment of postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) in settings where the standard of care, oxytocin – which requires cold storage and is administered by injection – is not available or cannot safely be used. WHO also recommends that misoprostol can be administered by community health workers for PPH prevention when skilled health providers are not present.
Some countries with high rates of non-facility births distribute misoprostol at antenatal care visits to women directly (a strategy called ‘advance distribution’), but WHO – citing unanswered questions about the safety and effectiveness of self-administered misoprostol in home births – has held off on recommending advance distribution, calling for additional research.
In Uganda, a research team from the University of Liverpool, Gynuity Health Projects, and Makerere University has tested the safety and feasibility of this community-based distribution model. MamaMiso, as this 2012 study was aptly called, provided misoprostol tablets to pregnant women for self-administration immediately after childbirth to prevent bleeding. Working in 200 villages in Mbale district, Eastern Uganda, the research team recruited women who came for antenatal care at Mbale Regional Referral Hospital or 3 large health centres (Busiu, Lwangoli and Siira) nearby.
Every pregnant woman at more than 34 weeks of gestation living in the recruitment villages was eligible to participate. Each participant was given a small purse, with a string that could be hung around the neck, containing 3 foil-packed tablets (600 micrograms misoprostol or placebo). Women were told to bring the purse home, to keep it with them, and to swallow the pills immediately after birth if they delivered at home. They were given an instruction sheet with written and pictorial instructions on how to take the tablets. Women were advised not to take the tablets if they went to a health facility for their delivery. Each participant was visited at 3 to 5 days after birth to check whether she had taken the medicine and to collect clinical outcomes.
MamaMiso’s results showed that self-administration of misoprostol is safe, and that advance distribution during antenatal care has the potential to increase the number of women who receive a medicine to prevent PPH. Of the women who enrolled in the research study, 57% gave birth at a facility and 43% delivered at home. Of those women who delivered at home, almost all (97%) took the study medicine after childbirth. Only 2 women (0.3%) took the medicine prior to delivery, and neither suffered adverse effects. Women who took misoprostol did experience fever and shivering, but they found these side effects to be acceptable.
These findings, together with results from other studies examining community-level use of misoprostol, have spurred national stakeholders to take action. The national Ugandan ob-gyn society has called for updating the national guidelines on PPH prevention to recommend community use of misoprostol, specifically enabling women to receive misoprostol as part of antenatal care. ‘We cannot continue to let women die when we have the solutions,’ said Dr. Charles Kiggundu, vice president of the Association of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists of Uganda. ‘The hindrance to using scientifically proven drugs is with health workers, not the women.”
Sarah Nerima was one of the women included in the MamaMiso study. After delivering her baby daughter among the banana trees, she opened her MamaMiso purse, and took the pills. “The bleeding was very, very little this time”, she said, “As you see, I am already very strong.”