Saving Mothers' Lives

© Fred Stockwell
With quality training, local health workers in eastern Myanmar increased access to life-saving maternal health services ten-fold.

At midnight in the rugged jungle of eastern Myanmar, a village headman’s young daughter was in labor, lying on a mat in the small hut she shared with her husband. She was petite and anemic from malnutrition and a history of malaria. A traditional birth attendant, an older woman relying on experience and local remedies, was by her side. The baby finally emerged, a healthy squalling boy. But the placenta did not come out, and the situation quickly turned dire as the new mother began to bleed heavily.

The attendant used longyis — long pieces of fabric typically worn as a skirt — to staunch the flow of blood, and likely she used a traditional technique of massaging the uterus from the outside. There was little else she could do. She had none of the resources used to treat the tens of thousands of women in developed countries who experience the same potentially devastating bleeding after childbirth. No electricity, no phones, no pharmacy. No government sponsored medical care in this part of the country, where dozens of makeshift villages like this one have sprung up in recent years to shelter thousands of families displaced by the country’s long-simmering civil conflict.

The woman’s husband ran and finally got word to a trained medic and director of a small clinic sponsored by Community Partners International, serving the isolated region. By the time the medic arrived at the hut an hour before sunrise, it was too late.

The eastern border region of Myanmar has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, with more than 700 deaths per 100,000 deliveries (compared to about 12 per 100,000 in the United States). One-third of the women there who die succumb to post-partum hemorrhage.

The grave risks that all women in eastern Myanmar face in giving birth spurred four ethnic health organizations to launch the Mobile Obstetric Maternal Health Workers (MOM) Project in 2005 with us, establishing a network of local health workers and traditional birth attendants trained and equipped to provide basic and emergency obstetric care for displaced and conflict-affected populations. MOM Project health workers were placed in the village where the headman’s daughter died, giving at-risk women there and all over Myanmar a much better chance of surviving childbirth.

In addition to saving lives, the MOM Project has paved the way for tens of thousands of women and children to have clean births, antenatal services, immunizations, malaria care and family planning — making mothers stronger all over Myanmar.

Adapted from the San Francisco Chronicle Copyright Janet Wells