One in seven women could die during childbirth in the West African countries most impacted by the Ebola crisis, according to members of the Disasters Emergency Committee, a coalition of aid organizations in the UK.
Though on the decline before the outbreak, maternal mortality rates in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Guinea were still some of the highest in the world. Now, these rates are expected to soar. The state of many local hospitals and clinics, strained by the influx of patients fighting the disease, has discouraged pregnant women from seeking antenatal care due to fear of interaction with bodily fluids. Korto Williams, the head of ActionAid in Liberia, said online videos have emerged of women giving birth in the streets with no help, because bystanders feared they had the disease.
“We have to do more to stop this horrendous prediction (from) coming true,” Williams said. “We have to ensure that pregnant women get the care they urgently need or we will see the rate of maternal deaths skyrocket. Ebola has taken enough lives already.”
According to the World Health Organization, more than 13,000 people have been infected with the disease since March. Almost 5,000 people have died in the three worst-hit countries. Some healthcare providers have turned into exclusive Ebola treatment facilities, leaving pregnant women, and people battling other diseases like malaria or tuberculosis, without any care. Save the Children chief executive Justin Forsyth said Ebola is having a “huge impact on wider health issues,” even spilling over into public education. “No children have gone to school since March and pregnant mums are avoiding health clinics and hospitals,” Forsyth said, adding that where pregnancy-related admissions averaged 80 a day, they are now around 20.
According to the UN Population Fund, of the 800,000 women that are expected to give birth over the next 12 months in the three countries, 120,000 will likely face complications that could lead to death if the current strain on medical services is sustained. If that happens, the maternal mortality rate could jump 20 times higher than it is now.
Aid groups are working to train more care givers and staff Ebola treatment facilities. Save the Children has worked with more than 250 providers and midwives, and has provided sanitation supplies to help workers stay safe. Meanwhile, there has been a drop in the number of new Ebola cases in Liberia, but the groups warn that the outbreak is far from over.
UN Women has been calling for a “gender-based” humanitarian response to the Ebola crisis that targets outreach services specifically to women. The UN Country Team in Sierra Leone launched an Ebola Gender Mainstreaming Strategy last month to better integrate women into all aspects of the Ebola response. The Strategy seeks to “build confidence among heath workers, and reestablish trust among communities to utilize public health facilities and services.”
Media Resources: Al Jazeera America 11/11/14; The Guardian 11/10/14; UN Women 10/30/14, 9/2/14; Feminist Newswire 9/18/14