If you have been watching the health news, you may have seen statistics released by the World Health Organization for stillbirths across the globe. Congratulations to Finland, which has the lowest rate at one per 1,000 births. Pakistan, a county I have lived in, has the second highest rate at 47 stillbirths per 1,000 births.
In 2008, I was invited to join a group of USAID (United States Agency for International Development) staff traveling to Kashmir to oversee a women’s health project. I jumped at the chance, even though it required traveling in a helicopter (I hate them), because we are not usually allowed to go to Kashmir. As disputed territory between Pakistan and India, it is not considered “secure.” So, the opportunity to see part of this district was too good to pass up.
The purpose of the project is to strengthen essential obstetric care in the district of Bagh, where 64 percent of deliveries occur without skilled attendants. There was no obstetric physician in all of Bagh, a district of 2 million people, until USAID paid to locate one—yes, that is ONE—there. To provide pre- and postnatal care to the mothers of the Bagh district, local nurses are trained to be professional midwives. They are located in rural areas where the preponderance of unattended births occur. One in every 74 deliveries is fatal for a mother in Pakistan versus 1 in 4,800 in the United States, so the program has tremendous potential. This is a two-year education program and very professional. I visited two rural health clinics, one where training was in process that day on how to prevent and treat post-delivery hemorrhage.
These clinics, housed in prefab buildings, have no running water. Hand washing stations were created using a system comprised of metal jugs, and instrument sterilization is done by boiling or by soaking the instruments in disinfectant. In addition to providing a place to deliver babies, these clinics, which were amazingly clean and tidy, provide health care to the general population.
Operating at low cost and with high return, such programs are fiscally efficient. WHO’s recent release of stillbirth statistics emphasizes the need for continued education in maternal-child health care in the poorest parts of the world. I do hope that cost cutting proposed by First World countries to tackle their budget problems does not include decreasing these effective, fiscally efficient programs. I’ve seen first hand the benefit they provide.