The ongoing perils of childbirth

Published online February 1, 2012.

A problem of supply in services is limiting further improvements in maternal health

Fertility rates in Rwanda have been falling steadily over the past several years, but this year close to 400,000 Rwandan women will become pregnant and give birth. Next door in Uganda, four times as many women will become pregnant, approximately 1.5 million. If recent trends hold, nearly 10,000 of these women will lose their lives during or shortly after their pregnancy. Many of them will suffer from bleeding and infections that can be treated or prevented.

Surveys show that pregnant women in both Rwanda and Uganda seek antenatal care at very high rates. Nearly 98% of women in Rwanda and 95% in Uganda have at least one antenatal visit during their pregnancy. These women want information about their pregnancy, and seek out health services that they believe will help them have healthy babies. But often the health system fails to provide these women with the information they need to take care of themselves, and far too many mothers lose their lives because they do not receive emergency care in time. Rwanda has been showing steady progress in improving maternal health, but Uganda has faired poorly.

Both Uganda and Rwanda continue to have high levels of maternal mortality, defined as the death of a woman while pregnant, or within 42 days after the termination of pregnancy (excluding accidents). Between 1985 and 1995 in Uganda, maternal mortality was estimated at 527 deaths per 100,000 live births. The following decade, from 1996 to 2006, maternal mortality was estimated at 435 deaths.Although these figures suggest a slight decrease over the past twenty years, the margin of error around these estimates are such that we cannot say with any confidence that maternal mortality rates have changed at all between 1985 and today. Thus, it appears pregnant women in Uganda today are equally likely to die in childbirth as they were 25 years ago, when the National Resistance Movement came to power.

Meanwhile, maternal mortality in Rwanda has fallen significantly, although rates in Rwanda have for some time been higher than those in Uganda. Between 1995 and 1999, maternal mortality in Rwanda was estimated at 1071 deaths per 100,000 live births, one of the highest rates of maternal death in the world. Between 2000 and 2004, however, it had dropped to 750. The most recent estimates should be available in the next year or so, and are likely to show even further decline.

Rwanda may have made greater strides than Uganda in reducing maternal mortality in the past decade or so, but both countries face significant challenges in improving maternal health. There is a long way to go. The good news is that unlike many types of preventive health behaviors, such as getting immunizations or sleeping under a bednet, seeking help during pregnancy has become very common, even natural. In other words, the demand for health care during pregnancy appears higher than for many other health issues. Unfortunately, while demand is high, supply of care during pregnancy is weak.

Although nearly all pregnant women seek antenatal services at least once during their pregnancy, not all clinics and health facilities are equipped and ready to meet their needs. In fact, most health facilities are lacking the basics when it comes to antenatal care. The Service Provision Assessment Survey 2007 found that only 31% of health facilities in Rwanda had all the items required for infection control, including running water, soap, latex gloves, and disinfectant, and only 28% had all the essential supplies for basic antenatal care, including iron and folic acid tablets, tetanus vaccines, and equipment to measure blood pressure. A mere 11% had all the medicines required to treat pregnancy complications, including antibiotics, antimalarial drugs, and medication to treat common sexually transmitted infections.

To make matters worse, very few women were given sufficient information so that they could take good care of themselves at home during their pregnancy. Only 8% of women in Rwanda were told about signs of pregnancy complications, while only 35% of women in Uganda were informed. It is perhaps not surprising that only 35% of Rwandan women and 47% of Ugandan women attend the recommended four antenatal visits. When women arrive in clinics, often without power or water, which do not provide the necessary equipment and information to help them with their pregnancy, there may be little incentive to keep going back.

Of course, the news is not all bad. On the contrary, the improvements that have been made in maternal health, particularly in Rwanda, are extraordinarily impressive. In just five years, between 2005 and 2010, the percentage of mothers whose delivery was assisted by a trained and skilled provider increased from 39% to 69%. The percentage of mothers who delivered in a health facility jumped an equally miraculous 28% to 69%. The increase in births under the watch of a skilled provider has likely played a large role in the reduction of maternal mortality. An estimated 15% of all pregnant women will encounter life-threatening complications, and trained nurses, midwifes, and physicians can help make sure these complications do not become fatal.

The fact that pregnant women appear to seek out services and information at high rates is a great opportunity for public health, but this opportunity is squandered if health facilities are poorly equipped to provide care. While Rwanda has made strides in improving the supply of care, there is less evidence of improvement in Uganda. The results speak for themselves.