Media reports on the neglected discussion of maternal and child health often focus on the problems and projects in sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, which is understandable, as a disproportionate 90 percent
of global maternal deaths occur in these two regions. Last month, however, PBS correspondent Ray Suarez reminded us that maternal and child mortality affects countries all over the world, including Peru, where “maternal death rates has historically been unusually high,” he noted in a report for NewsHour.
“Few people in the highlands of central Peru own automobiles and it’s hard to know exactly when the next bus is going to rumble by,” said Suarez. “Villagers are a long way from the nearest health clinic, even further from a fully equipped clinic.” Unfortunately, this scene could describe most developing countries struggling to reach the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5 target of reducing maternal deaths by 75 percent by 2015. Maternal health advocates argue that MDG 5 does not require a cure, but rather increased political willpower.
“Health officials, obstetricians, nurses, and community activists looked for ways to make better use of existing resources and connect expecting mothers with them,” said Suarez, reporting from the remote town of Vilcashuaman. At the Casa Materna, or “mother’s house,” nurses plot on a felt, bulls-eye map the names, due dates, geographical proximity, and travel times of pregnant women in nearby villages. Utilizing two-way radio communication, Casa Materna stays in contact with these remote villages and can signal the regional hospital, hours away in Ayacucho, for ambulance assistance for women needing emergency obstetric care.
Delivery teams at the Ayacucho hospital are familiar with indigenous languages and cultures, and welcome traditional practices, such as displaying herbs and giving figurines to new mothers. “The medical professionals in the area know bringing delivering mothers to the hospital can mean the difference between life and death and are prepared to be as accommodating as possible to lure women from home delivery,” reports Suarez. In the Ayacucho district, maternal mortality rates have decreased by 50 percent in five years.
While Suarez said “cultural competence, a welcoming atmosphere, and low-cost, high-result treatment strategies” may seem “pretty smart and straightforward,” it is important to evaluate the regional health system at a larger level, and consider additional factors, such as access to family planning, that may have contributed to Ayacucho’s success in reducing maternal mortality.
Another part of the solution is improving transportation and referral strategies, but increased research is needed to evaluate best practices and scalability of programs such as the one in Ayacucho. On May 19-20, as part of the Maternal Health Dialogue Series, the Wilson Center’s Global Health Initiative will host a two-day conference on “Improving Transportation and Referral for Maternal Health.” Speakers working on transportation and referral strategies in Bolivia, Ghana, and India will share their experiences and best practices.
Calyn Ostrowski is the program associate for the Wilson Center’s Global Health Initiative.
Photo Credits: Mothers in Peru learn to identify risk factors during pregnancy. Courtesy of Flickr user International Women’s Health Coalition