Maternal Health Care and the “Silent Tsunami”

Interview With Director of MaterCare International

NEW YORK, SEPT. 19, 2005 (Zenit.org).- The Millennium Development Goals, especially those regarding poverty, have gained a lot of recent media attention, though one seems to be conspicuously ignored.

So says Dr. Robert Walley, executive director of MaterCare International, a Newfoundland-based organization of Catholic health professionals.

He explained to ZENIT in an interview last week how the U.N. goal of improving maternal health has not received the same attention as the others.

Q: Is it true that the one of the millennium goals is being overlooked?

Walley: Yes, the fifth Millennium Development Goal [MDG], which is concerned with “improving maternal health,” is being ignored.

This was particularly evident at the 58th annual meeting of Department of Public Information/Non-Governmental Organizations last week. The gathering discussed the implementation of the Millennium Development Goals regarding only peace, security and human rights and strengthening the U.N.

The tragedy of maternal deaths and birth injury was not mentioned in any of the plenary sessions, not even by the campaign director for the implementation of the MDG’s. This is the second year that this has happened at this conference.

Q: What, precisely, is not being mentioned?

The fact is that a large group of pregnant women, defined as mothers, are being denied their right to receive proper care during pregnancy and childbirth. This is resulting in deaths and destruction to communities that could be avoided with the right attention.

Q: But perhaps many would see the other MDG’s as more important priorities. What makes the fifth one that includes health-care treatment for the world’s mothers so special?

Walley: In the developing world, motherhood is a high priority. They value children, the family and the village community.

The wealthier nations are very concerned about AIDS, and rightly so, because people in these countries are dying of the disease. However, rarely does a mother die in Toronto, London or New York, as they have access to the best care and the best facilities in which to give birth.

Therefore politicians, the professionals and the media have very little interest or concern about maternal deaths, or in providing poor mothers with essential services.

Mothers in the developing world are experiencing a sort of “silent tsunami.” Nearly 600,000 mothers are dying every year, that’s about the equivalent of twice the number who lost their lives in the Southeast Asian tragedy.

These deaths of mothers do not occur in the glare of the international media spotlight. These mothers die alone, in terror from hemorrhaging, or agony from unrelieved obstructed labor. It’s an international disgrace.

Q: So you would say that a lack of political will is the main thing standing in the way of necessary action?

Walley: Absolutely. There should be pressure to do something extraordinary, and it should be coming from non-governmental organizations [NGOs] from women’s and health professional groups, but it’s not.

Last year MaterCare International was invited to provide a lunchtime workshop in the United Nations on a particular MDG. Of course, being an international group of obstetricians and midwives, we agreed to contribute a workshop dealing with the fifth MDG on improving maternal health.

To our surprise, only two NGOs out of 575 registered for the conference, and only 20 of the 2,750 registrants thought that the topic was important enough to address.

Q: But surely there have been some progress made in this issue — perhaps you could tell us what some of these are?

Walley: There are signs of some movement in the right direction, but it needs continued pressure from groups such as MaterCare.

The UNFPA [United Nations Population Fund], which is under some pressure due to the United States efforts to withdraw their funding due to its promotion of reproductive health, is only slightly changing its stripes. The reproductive health policy is now giving way to what they would hope to be a more balanced approach to solving the maternal mortality problem.<br>
They have a three-pronged strategy: universal access to contraceptive services to reduce so-called unwanted pregnancies, skilled attendance at all births, and emergency obstetric care.

This is a step forward, but the fact remains that enormous amounts of funding is directed to destroying or obstructing motherhood, than helping mothers deliver their babies in a safe clean environment.

The thinking is that most women did not want to be pregnant. What mothers need is essential access to essential obstetrical care, which is available to all mothers in our rich world.

Q: What is it then that you think needs to be done to respond to this goal?

Walley: There is work to be done on a variety of levels. I think that most importantly much more effort must be made at a professional level by obstetricians who are at the service of the Gospel of life.

This means developing new initiatives of service, training, research and advocacy designed to contribute to the reduction of maternal mortality, morbidity and abortion.

Q: What do you mean by working in terms of the Gospel of life?

Walley: As an international group of professionals and believers, coming from rich and poor nations, we are trying to put it into practice what we do and link it to what we believe.

In doing so we are challenging the anti-life, contraceptive mentality that presently dominates the practice of obstetrics.

For one thing, we have to provide alternative training opportunities for those who want to specialize in obstetrics, but who are not able because they refuse to cooperate in birth control or abortion programs.

Q: You touched on a very practical response here. Could you give us some more examples of how MaterCare International is working?

Walley: We do the things that we know how to do. We are clinicians, so we provide new initiatives for essential obstetrical services in rural Africa.

In Ghana we are currently running a project in the Diocese of Sunyani, in Africa, and early next year we will open a specialized birth-injury treatment and training center in the Archdiocese of Cape Coast.

In Kenya we are developing a maternity center in the Diocese of Isiolo, Kenya, as a tribute to Pope John Paul II and to the late Bishop Luigi Locati, who was murdered in June.

In Rwanda we are working on a treatment center for women with birth injuries, those with genital mutilation due to circumcision or from injuries sustained during the 1994 genocide.

We also research new ideas for the treatment of life-threatening complications of pregnancy and childbirth. For example, MaterCare is developing a new and effective treatment for post delivery hemorrhaging, which is the cause of most maternal deaths.

Additionally, we train all levels of health care professionals so that they can provide better care. MaterCare has run three international workshops at a retreat center in Rome since 2001. Each workshop is simple and is both a spiritual as well as a professional retreat. The next will be in October 2006.

Two special workshops are planned to be held in Zagreb and Warsaw to support obstetricians from post-Communist countries.

Finally, we are advocates of motherhood, and we work to help motherhood gain some political importance.

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