Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Making maternal health better

IT all happened for three of our women these past few days.
Over at the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, Dika Toua wins gold in weightlifting.
From Koror, Palau, comes news of Western Highland’s well-known dame, Meg Taylor’s appointment to the secretary-general position of the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat.
At Government House in Konedobu, Leka Nama Nablu signs an oath of office to join the exclusive club of women judges in the National and Supreme Courts.
These are achievements we are no doubt proud and ecstatic about. But pride for our women would be greater and more meaningful if there were concerted efforts made to reduce the risks of child-bearing and eliminating preventable deaths of mothers and infants.
Toua, a young Papua New Guinean mother, has shot to international fame by her gold medal win but back home, the very survival of a vast majority of her sisters – mothers like her and young women planning marriage and raising families – is hardly ‘in medal contention’.
Our infant and maternal mortality rate is something we will never be proud of for a long while yet.
Last Friday University of Goroka’s vice chancellor Dr Gairo Onagi again highlighted the stark reality of an unnecessarily large number of mothers and children dying during child-birth.
The mortality rate is as high as it is shameful. 
United Nations statistics show place Papua New Guinea second only to Afghanistan in the Asia-Pacific region in infant and maternal mortality rates.
Afghanistan is a landloc­ked country mostly of highland desert like conditions and predominantly Muslim. And in much of the Muslim world women and girls’ education and general advancement, sadly, does not rank high up there in the national psyche. Combine that with the harsh geographical conditions, a volatile political en­vironment and scars of conflict dotting the landscape and you have one of the riskiest places on earth to fall pregnant in.
That is probably where an African proverb holds true: To fall pregnant is to have one leg in the grave.
Little wonder then that a United Nations agency has ranked that country’s infant and maternal mortality rate as the highest in the Asia-Pacific region. One would expect one of Afghanistan’s closer neighbours to be next in line in ranking, but alas, it is faraway PNG.
In many respects PNG’s natural endowments, economic conditions and political climate contrast sharply with those of Afghanistan’s yet our women face almost the same risks at pregnancy and childbirth as Afghan women. Why?
Onagi cited official statistics which show that there are about 700 deaths occurring for every 100,000 live births in PNG.  Compare that with Australia where the figure is a low nine deaths per 100,000 live births.
Onagi has it on record that many of the deaths occur in rural areas where access to safe motherhood facilities are lacking or where there are no trained persons to assist in deliveries.
The university and the Australian government must be commended for the establishment of the new building for midwifery training and staff quarters. The University of Goroka introduced its Bachelor of Midwifery course in 2010 to help reduce maternal mortality deaths.
Onagi said the training of more midwives was one sure way of saving mothers dying unnecessarily from child birth complications. A number of midwives have graduated from the university, adding to others already in the public health sector and recent graduates from pre-existing training institutions. This is a major step of the way to PNG reducing the high maternal mortality rate.
It appears from all reliable information that many of these deaths are preventable and occur because of a lack of trained midwives to assist. Midwifery services are critically needed not only in all rural health posts but at the major provincial hospitals, including Port Moresby General Hospital.
Midwives trained should be encouraged and driven by a desire to make a difference and go into rural settings where access to services might not be as good as in urban centres. 
The O’Neill Government’s free primary health care policy comes at a time when the country generally can afford it.  It should therefore be seen to produce results, one of which is to make accessible services such as maternal health care to all who need it.