Heavy bleeding, high blood pressure, pre-term labor, gestational diabetes -- all these can endanger the health of pregnant women and their babies. In most cases, medical intervention can save lives -- if it comes in time. In many places, it doesn't.
One of the United Nation's Millennium Development Goals is to reduce by three quarters the maternal mortality ratio. According to its 2012 progress report, in "developing" countries the number of maternal deaths per 100,000 live births dropped to 240 in 2010 from 440 in 1990. Significant improvement, but this compares to 12.7 deaths per 100,000 live births in the United States. And in some countries, the figure is far worse. In Sub-Saharan Africa, the average remains 500.
There is still so much to do.
Many maternal deaths are preventable with fairly basic medical care. Taking a pregnant woman's blood pressure and checking her weight throughout her pregnancy can alert health care providers to potential life-threatening conditions early enough to address them. But even these simple measures are often impossible due to a lack of basic medical resources -- blood pressure cuffs, scales, thermometers, stethoscopes, gloves.
In addition, in many resource-poor communities, pregnant women live too far from an equipped medical center to make prenatal care a practical reality. They may have to walk miles to a clinic or travel by boat, leaving their other children behind. Arduous travel may be impossible in the later months of pregnancy. At certain times of the year, roads become impassable even for foot traffic. Sometimes the trip is simply too costly.
There is also a more insidious and complicated obstacle to women receiving care: In many cultures, a woman must have permission from her husband to seek medical attention -- permission that is not always granted in a timely fashion, if at all.
The results of unattended births, especially when there has been no prenatal care, often include dead or injured mothers and dead or injured infants. Fistulas -- holes in the vaginal canal -- due to traumatic deliveries are common and can cause paralysis and infections in mothers.
Despite these challenges, Global Links and its partners are helping to address access to care by equipping hospitals and birthing centers in resource-poor communities in Latin America and the Caribbean with the medical equipment and materials they need for pregnant women and newborns. C-sections are life-saving surgeries that cannot be performed without sutures -- our suture donation program sends surplus surgical sutures from the United States to hospitals and clinics worldwide, saving the lives of many women and their children.
In collaboration with Zonta Club of Pittsburgh, Global Links contributes "clean birth kits" to midwives and clinics in many underserved communities. We also provide to participating birthing centers beautiful, volunteer-made baby bags filled with items for newborn care that are scarce or costly in resource-poor areas. The bags provide an incentive for women to take the extra time and effort to come in for prenatal care and attended deliveries.
These initiatives save lives, but the real change will come as the status of women -- their health, their education, their incomes, their basic human rights -- improves. When the health of a mother becomes a community and national priority, maternal mortality will fall. It requires a cultural and societal change of attitude.
The focus on Millennium Development Goals throughout Latin America and the Caribbean has meant the difference between life and death for women and children. The work of national and local health authorities in collaboration with private charitable organizations is improving health outcomes. Trained community health workers, many of them women, are improving the statistics and proving their worth. As more women experience prenatal care and attended deliveries, attitudes will change.
But until every member of every society is valued, we will be plagued by inexcusable inequities. By improving care in clinics and large urban hospitals, educating medical personnel to work in underserved areas and keeping alive the conversation about the status of women and maternal/infant health, we can contribute to the world's social, political and economic security. Everything is connected.
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction: Fistulas -- holes in the vaginal canal -- due to traumatic birthing deliveries can cause paralysis and infections in mothers. They do not endanger babies as stated in an op-ed piece Thursday.
Kathleen Hower is co-founder and CEO of Global Links, an international humanitarian and environmental organization based in Pittsburgh (firstname.lastname@example.org). This month she is visiting maternal health centers in Honduras to determine how Global Links can help. Tomorrow is International Women's Day (www.internationalwomensday.com).