What happens when a mother dies? In the West, the most ready and obvious answer is grief – the harrowing emotional and psychological toll of losing a loved one. A mother’s death is largely viewed as a private tragedy that will grow more manageable in time.
But in many developing countries, a mother’s death is much more than an emotional crisis, often leading to long-term social and economic breakdown, both for her immediate family and the wider community. This topic is explored in new depth, in a special issue launched today in Reproductive Health (an open-access journal).
By Meagan Byrne, Program Assistant, Gynuity Health Projects
This post originally appeared on the Maternal Health Task Force blog.
In Chitral district of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Province, Pakistan, a high rate of home births translates to inadequate or nonexistent treatment for life-threatening obstetric complications, like postpartum hemorrhage (PPH). According to the 2012-13 Pakistan DHS report, nearly two-thirds of women deliver at home in rural areas of KP province.
Customarily, home births are managed by a traditional birth attendant (TBA) and if a complication like PPH arises, the only care available is to transfer the woman to a higher level facility or have a skilled provider called to the woman’s home to administer oxytocin as treatment. In Chitral, many villages are located far from health centers and access to care is especially difficult due to poor infrastructure and limited transport. Faced with these barriers, women who develop PPH are rarely transferred to a facility, so having treatment options available at home is critical.
Misoprostol, a prostaglandin analog that reduces blood loss after delivery, is a useful drug in this setting because it requires neither cold storage nor a skilled attendant to administer it. A recent study—implemented in Chitral by Gynuity Health Projects and Aga Khan Health Service, Pakistan—explored the feasibility of providing misoprostol to traditional birth attendants and having them administer it to prevent and treat PPH in home deliveries.
In this study, women received misoprostol prophylaxis (a 3-tablet dose) and in the event of PPH, the TBA administered a treatment dose of misoprostol with referral to a higher level of care. Study trainings reiterated the importance of transfer if a woman experiences a delivery complication. Despite prophylaxis, there were women who were diagnosed with PPH and received study treatment. The study confirmed that TBAs are able to administer misoprostol correctly and safely for both prophylaxis and treatment.
There has been an increase in the number of facility-based deliveries worldwide; yet for many women, a facility delivery is not an option. Among women in our study who had planned to have a facility delivery, many delivered at home due to road blocks, unavailable transportation, or unavailability of a family member to accompany them to the facility.
There will always be women who will not be able to deliver at a facility, despite plan to do so. Among women who deliver at home and experience PPH, many will experience delays or will never be transferred to a health facility. For these women, it is imperative to have a treatment option available at the community level since the average time from onset of PPH to death is only two hours.
The following video showcases infrastructure barriers to safe delivery and expresses the thoughts of TBAs and other healthcare providers on access to obstetric services in Chitral and the use of misoprostol to manage PPH.
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.”
Walif was only 16 and his younger sister, Nassim, just 11 when their mother died in childbirth in Butajira, Ethiopia.
Both Walif and Nassim had been promising students, especially Walif, who had hoped to score high on the national civil service exam after completing secondary school. But following the death of their mother, their father left them to go live with a second wife in the countryside. Walif dropped out of school to care for his younger siblings, as did Nassim and two other sisters, who had taken jobs as house girls in Addis Ababa and Saudi Arabia.
Nassim was married at 15, to a man for whom she bore no affection, so that she would no longer be an economic burden to the family. By the age of 17, she already had her first child. Seven years after his mother died, Walif was still caring for his younger siblings, piecing together odd jobs to pay for their food, although he could not afford the school fees.
In all, with one maternal death, four children’s lives were derailed, not just emotionally but economically.
More than 1,000 miles away, in the rural Nyanza province of Kenya, a woman in the prime of her life died while giving birth to her seventh child, leaving a void that her surviving husband struggled to fill. He juggled tending the family farm, maintaining his household, raising his children and keeping his languishing newborn son alive.
But he didn’t know how to feed his son, so he gave him cow’s milk mixed with water. At three months old, the baby was severely malnourished. A local health worker visited the father and showed him how to feed and care for the baby. That visit saved the baby’s life.
The causes and high number of maternal deaths in Ethiopia, Malawi, Tanzania, South Africa, and Kenya — the five countries explored in the research — are well documented, but this is the first time research has catalogued the consequences of those deaths to children, families, and communities.
The studies found stark differences between the wellbeing of children whose mothers did and did not survive childbirth:
Out of 59 maternal deaths, only 15 infants survived to two months, according to a study in Kenya.
In Tanzania, researchers found that most newborn orphans weren’t breastfed. Fathers rarely provided emotional or financial support to their children following a maternal death, affecting their nutrition, health care, and education.
Across the settings studied, children were called upon to help fill a mother’s role within the household following her death, which often led to their dropping out of school to take on difficult farm and household tasks beyond their age and abilities.
How do we use these new research findings to advocate for greater international investment in women’s health?
At a webcast presentation earlier this month, a panel of researchers, reproductive and maternal health program implementers, advocates and development specialists discussed that question.
Central to the discussion was the belief that the death of a woman during pregnancy and childbirth is a terrible injustice in and of itself. The vast majority of these deaths are preventable, and physicians and public health practitioners have long known the tools needed to prevent them. And yet, every 90 seconds a woman dies from maternal causes, most often in a developing country.
The panelists expressed hope that these new data, which show that the true toll of these deaths is far greater than previously understood, can help translate advocacy into action.
It’s important to recognize that, beyond the personal tragedy and the enormous human suffering that these numbers reflect — some hundreds of thousands of women die needlessly every year — there are enormous costs involved as well. -Panelist Jeni Klugman, a senior adviser to the World Bank Group and a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
“So quantifying those effects in terms of [children’s] lower likelihood of surviving, the enormous financial and health costs involved and the repercussions down the line in terms of poverty, dropping out of school, bad nutrition and future life prospects are all tremendously powerful as additional information to take to the ministries of finance, to take to the donors, to take to stakeholders, to help mobilize action,” said Klugman.
Just what does “action” mean? Currently, the countries of the world are debating the new global development agenda to succeed the eight Millennium Development Goals, an ambitious global movement to end poverty. Advocates can use this research to make the case that reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health should play a central role in this agenda, given that it reveals the linkages between the health of mothers, stable families, and ultimately, more able communities, according to Amy Boldosser-Boesch, Interim President and CEO of FCI.
Panelists also called for more aggressive implementation of the strategies known to prevent maternal mortality in the first place; as well as for the provision of social, educational, and financial support to children who have lost their mothers; and for continued research that outlines the direct and indirect financial costs of a woman’s contributions to her household, and what her absence does to her family’s social and economic well-being.
But action is also required outside of the realm of health care, said Alicia Ely Yamin, lecturer in Global Health and Population at the Harvard School of Public Health and policy director of the FXB Center.
In fact, the cascade of ill effects for children and families documented by this research doesn’t begin with a maternal death. The plight of the women captured in these studies begins when they experience discrimination and marginalization in their societies: “It [maternal death] is not a technical problem. It’s because women lack voice and agency at household, community, and societal levels; and because their lives are not valued,” she said.
Klugman added that this research adds to work on gender discrimination, including issues like gender-based violence, which affects one in three women worldwide.
It’s a tall order: advancing gender equality, preventing maternal, newborn, and child death, and improving the overall well-being of families. But panelists were hopeful that this research can show policy makers, and the public, that these issues are intertwined, and must be addressed as parts of a whole.
As Aslihan Kes, an economist and gender specialist at ICRW and one of the researchers on the Kenya study concluded, this research is “making visible the central role women have in sustaining their households.”
This is an opportunity to really put women front and center, making all of the arguments for addressing the discrimination and constraints they face across their lives. -Aslihan Kes
On October 7, 2014, a panel of experts in maternal health—moderated by Dr. Ana Langer, the Director of the Maternal Health Task Force—gathered at the Harvard School of Public Health to discuss the socioeconomic impact of a maternal death on her family and community. Several studies were summarized and priorities for how to use this research were discussed by the panel and audience at “Women’s Lives Matter: The Impact of Maternal Death on Families and Communities.”
What does the research say?
In many countries around the world, the household is the main economic unit of a society. At the center of this unit is the mother and the work—both productive and reproductive—that she provides for her family. A study in Kenya, led by Aslihan Kes of the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW) and Amy Boldosser-Boesch of Family Care International (FCI), showed great indirect and direct costs of a mother losing her life. This cost is often accompanied by the additional cost and care-taking needs of a newborn. “Once this woman dies the household has to reallocate labor across all surviving members to meet the needs of the household. In many cases that meant giving up other productive work, loss of income, hiring an external laborer, girls and boys dropping out of school or missing school days to contribute [to household work],” shared Kes. In addition, the study done in Kenya determined that families whose mother died used 30% of their annual spending for pregnancy and delivery costs; a proportion categorized by the WHO as catastrophic and a shock to a household.
Similar research was conducted in South Africa, Tanzania, Ethiopia, and Malawi by Ali Yamin and colleagues. In addition to similar socioeconomic findings to those in Kenya, Yamin found that less than 50% of children survived to their fifth birth if their mother died compared to over 90% of children whose mothers lived. An even more dramatic relationship was found in Ethiopia with 81% of children dying by six months of age if their mother had died. In South Africa, mortality rates for children whose mothers had died were 15 times higher compared to children whose mothers survived.
Increasing the visibility of maternal death
While a family is grappling with grief they are also making significant changes in roles and structure to meet familial needs. Dr. Klugman emphasized this point when she said, “Quantifying [the] effects [of maternal death]… and the repercussions down the line—in terms of poverty, dropping out of school, bad nutrition, and future life prospects—I think are all tremendously powerful. [This] additional information [is] very persuasive—to take to the ministries of finance, to take to donors, to take to stakeholders—to help mobilize action for the interventions that are needed.”
Apart from the economic and social costs, is a foundation of human rights violations and gender inequalities. The high rate of preventable maternal mortality is no longer a technical issue, but a social issue. “Maternal mortality it is a global injustice. It is the indicator that shows the most disparities between the North and the developing world in the South. It’s not a technical problem, it’s because women lack voice and agency at household, community, and societal levels and because their lives are not valued. Through this research of showing what happens when those women die, it shows in a way how much they do [and how it] is discounted,” said Dr. Yamin, whose research focuses on the human rights violations in maternal health.
Leveraging this research for improved reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health
The research findings are clear: prevention of maternal mortality is technically feasible, the right of every woman, and significantly important for the well-being of a family and a community. Boldosser-Boesch provided three reasons why making the case for preventing maternal mortality is critical at this time.
These findings strengthen our messaging globally and in countries with the highest rates on the importance of preventing maternal mortality, by increasing access to quality care, which includes emergency obstetric and newborn care.
This research supports integration across the reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health (RMNCH) continuum to break down current silos in funding and programs.
“We are at a key moment… for having new information about the centrality of RMNCH to development, because… the countries of the world are working now to define a new development agenda, beyond the MDGS, post-2015. And that agenda will focus a lot on sustainable development… and we see in these findings… , connections to the economic agenda…, questions of gender equality, particularly what this means for surviving girl children, who… may experience earlier marriage or lack of access to education,” shared Boldosser-Boesch.
In order to move the agenda forward on preventing maternal mortality and ensuring gender equality, ministries of health and development partners must be engaged. In addition, donors can fund the action of integration to address a continuum approach and media outlets should be leveraged to disseminate these findings and hold governments accountable for keeping promises and making changes. The prevention of maternal mortality is a human rights-based, personal, and in the socioeconomic interest of a family, community, and a society.
This panel included:
Ana Langer, Director of the Maternal Health Task Force
Alicia Yamin, Lecturer on Global Health at the Harvard School of Public Health
Amy Boldosser-Boesch, Interim President & CEO, Family Care International
Jeni Klugman, Senior Adviser at The World Bank Group
Aslihan Kes, Economist and Gender Specialist, International Center for Research on Women