This Saturday I leave for another trip to Sierra Leone, and I was surprised to see the country on the front page of yesterday’s Washington Post.
The article has some powerful stories, but here are a few facts (plus some analysis). Here is a photo gallery.
More than 500,000 women a year — about one every minute — die in childbirth across the globe, almost exclusively in the developing world, and almost always from causes preventable with basic medical care. The planet’s worst rates are in this startlingly poor nation on West Africa’s Atlantic coast, where a decade of civil war that ended in 2002 deepened chronic deprivation.
According to the United Nations, a woman’s chance of dying in childbirth in the United States is 1 in 4,800. In Ireland, which has the best rate in the world, it is 1 in 48,000. In Sierra Leone, it is 1 in 8.
Maternal mortality rarely gets attention from international donors, who are far more focused on global health threats such as malaria, tuberculosis and HIV-AIDS. “Maternal death is an almost invisible death,” said Thoraya A. Obaid, executive director of the U.N. Population Fund.
The women die from bleeding, infection, obstructed labor and preeclampsia, or pregnancy-induced high blood pressure. But often the underlying cause is simply life in poor countries: Governments don’t provide enough decent hospitals or doctors; families can’t afford medications.
A lack of education and horrible roads cause women to make unwise health choices, so that they often prefer the dirt floor of home to deliveries at the hands of a qualified stranger at a distant hospital.
Women die in childbirth every day, according to people who study the issue, because of cultures and traditions that place more worth on the lives of men. “It really reflects the way women are not valued in many societies,” said Betsy McCallon of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, one of the few groups that advocates to reduce deaths in childbirth. “But there is not that sense of demand that this is unacceptable, so it continues to happen.”