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A Model for Preventing Maternal Deaths

By Dr. Neena Prasad of the Bloomberg Philanthropies Public Health team

In 2006, when we launched our Maternal and Reproductive Health Program in Tanzania’s Kigoma region, it was home to 2 million people—that’s about the number of people in Nebraska. But not a single one of those people was an obstetrician.

This is important to note because, around the world, deaths related to pregnancy and childbirth are unacceptably high. In fact, almost 300,000 women die from complications of pregnancy and childbirth every year, and for every maternal death, about another 20 women suffer from injury or illness, often with lifelong consequences. In Tanzania alone, 8,200 maternal deaths occur every year. That’s approximately one death every hour.

The problem is compounded by the fact that in developing countries 220 million women and girls want to delay or avoid pregnancy but are not using modern contraception.

We know that when mothers’ lives are at risk, so are the lives of their children, their families and their communities. And we know that the vast number of these deaths would be preventable with access to quality maternal and reproductive health care.

That’s why today, on International Women’s Day, we’re highlighting the incredible work of our partners in Kigoma to improve obstetric and family planning services in the region and the lives of tens of thousands of women, children and families.

Our approach builds on the Tanzanian government’s vision to make quality maternal health services accessible at the community level, so that women don’t have to risk their lives reaching hospitals that are hours away. To do this, in partnership with the Tanzanian government, we upgraded the infrastructure of existing health facilities to better enable treatment of obstetric emergencies. And because in Tanzania, like many rural communities around the world, there were no obstetricians and very few doctors, we trained non-physician clinicians to provide emergency care.

Today, Bloomberg Philanthropies’ Maternal and Reproductive Health Program has helped to enhance 70 dispensaries, 13 health centers and 3 hospitals in Kigoma. The program has improved surgical facilities and trained 45 non-physician clinicians- Assistant Medical Officers, Nurse Midwives and Clinical Officers- in emergency obstetric care, including c-sections, and in anesthesia.

The best way to prevent maternal deaths is to prevent unintended pregnancies, so these clinicians incorporate family planning and comprehensive post-abortion care into targeted health centers; provide family planning services through community service days; and employ community health workers to educate communities about the benefits of contraceptive care.

Now, in Kigoma, more than 380,000 women have received a contraceptive method of their choice which has prevented over 580,000 unintended pregnancies.

At the same time, today, most women in Kigoma are delivering in a healthcare facility with a skilled provider, more obstetric complications are being treated in a timely way and more women who need a life-saving c-section are getting one.

That means that every year hundreds of maternal and newborn deaths are prevented.

My colleagues and I at Bloomberg Philanthropies are really proud of this work because it shows what can be done with focused, dedicated work and political will. We hope that this program can serve as a model for other countries that have high numbers of maternal deaths. Because all women, no matter where they live, deserve long, healthy lives.