Having very recently become a parent, I finally have something in common with William and Kate apart from my British nationality. It was not an ‘easy’ birth, if there is such a thing. In short, our little girl got stuck and needed to be wrested out using a suction pump. Her head was temporarily cone shaped as a result which made her look like a comedy alien.
So, while it was not exactly the Lindo wing of St. Mary’s, my daughter was lucky to be born in a well-equipped hospital with specialists on hand to ensure her big appearance was a success. But it got me thinking, what if we’d not made it to the hospital and there were no medical professionals to help? And I kept coming back to the same answer: my wife and child would likely be dead.
Every day, around 800 women die from causes linked to pregnancy and childbirth. And it will come as little surprise that the majority of these deaths occur in poor countries. What may come as more of a shock is the sheer size of the disparity: 99 per cent of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries, largely in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.
Most deaths are caused by severe bleeding, infections, high blood pressure, disease and unsafe abortions. And the vast majority are easily preventable. But they are not prevented for a host of reasons including inadequate healthcare facilities, scarce or poorly trained medical staff as well as lack of health education and people’s distance from health facilities.
The organization I work for, Doctors of the World, runs programmes in places with some of the highest maternal and child mortality rates and every day our volunteer health professionals hear stories about the precariousness of pregnancy and childbirth.
Take Noor, for example, a 25-year-old Syrian woman living with her three young children in a refugee camp in North Bekaa, Lebanon.
‘When I was eight months pregnant, I was stung by a scorpion and had to be taken to hospital,’ she told us. ‘We had to pay 100,000 Lebanese pounds [around $66] so that I could get some care. That’s a lot of money for me, but it was pay or die.’
The good news is things are improving. Since 1990, maternal deaths worldwide have dropped by almost half, perhaps because improving maternal health was one of the eight Millennium Development Goals adopted by the international community in 2000.
But over three million newborn babies still die each year, and 2.6 million more are stillborn. In 2012 it was estimated that over 200 million women worldwide still have unmet family planning needs and over 20 million women will resort to a high-risk abortion.
And it’s not just in poor countries where people have problems accessing healthcare. At the clinic Doctors of the World runs for migrants and other vulnerable people in East London, a third of our new patients had tried to register with a GP before coming to us and not succeeded. Two-thirds of our service users had difficulty accessing healthcare in the past year because they didn’t know how, or they faced administrative barriers and were denied access.
The right to survive pregnancy and childbirth is implicit in the right to life, a fundamental right of women and children enshrined in all treaties, conventions and declarations made by the international community concerning human rights.
And this is your right wherever you’re from, whether you’re rich or poor, whether your blood runs red or blue.