Tag Archives: maternal morbidity

Selected case studies of women who were denied enjoyment of ‘right to health’ in Kenya

 

A review of ‘Human Rights Issues in maternal health care in Kenya: Do Kenyan women enjoy the right to maternal health?’ and ‘Barriers to enjoyment of health as a human right in Africa’ provides a useful background to the case studies.

The recently launched report by the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights[i] highlights several incidents and situations where women were denied their right to health care services both because of non-availability of resources and non-affordability of services, as well as misdeeds on the part of health care providers. People living with disabilities (PWDs), in particular, complained of mistreatment, especially delays in getting attended to in health facilities. Most health institutions were not disabled-friendly in terms of infrastructure and means of communication, for example, facilities for sign language or Braille.

A Level 2 Health Facility at Mtwapa, Mombasa County (Picture: J Mati)

Witnesses raised several complaints related to the inefficient referral systems in several health facilities that caused considerable delays in obtaining higher level care, not infrequently resulting in fatal consequences for the women and their babies. This was particularly a serious problem when it came to referral of patients from levels 1 and 2 to appropriate higher level facilities.

In some cases, women in rural areas had to be transported on wheel barrows by family members or on donkey carts. Where hospitals had ambulances, the patients or the relatives were required to pay amounts ranging from KSHs. 500 to KSHs. 3,000 supposedly to fuel the vehicles. In situations where people were unable to pay, patients were denied treatment. In other instances, blood was not readily available in hospital blood banks, or the facilities lacked adequate infrastructure to obtain blood for emergency transfusions.

In Tana River, for example, a woman who developed complications after delivering at a dispensary (level 2) died while waiting to raise funds, through harambee, to fuel a government ambulance to take her to Hola District Hospital. A similar report is given in connection with a maternal death due to lack of transport between Magarini Dispensary and Malindi District Hospital, both in Kilifi County.

In Lamu County, patients who needed to be referred to Coast Provincial Hospital in Mombasa were reportedly required to pay between KSHs. 8,000 and KSHs. 10,000 to fuel the hospital’s ambulance. Where there are no ambulances, as in Wajir and Marsabit District Hospitals families had either to hire expensive taxis or resort to donkeys and camels to transport their sick members.

Witnesses testified that the high cost of hospital delivery, especially the fees charged at level 4 and 5 facilities, was a key hindrance to accessing skilled attendance at delivery. A witness during the inquiry stated thus: ‘Many women deliver at home because they do not have enough money to go to the hospital’.

 Corruption, especially among hospital management staff, was also cited as a barrier to accessing maternal health services. According to witness accounts from Kitale, corruption in health facilities meant that patients ended up paying for drugs and other items that ought to be provided for free. Similarly, bribes were solicited to facilitate earlier scheduling of surgical treatment, as stated by a witness at the Coast: “For one to get an operation done quickly at Coast General Hospital one has to pay bribes or know someone because there are long queues, so I left”.

Mistreatment in health facilities by unkind, cruel, sometimes inebriated hospital staff, who scolded, abused and even beat patients also features prominently in the report. So are delays in getting attended to in health institutions, particularly in the labour ward, where witnesses complained of being neglected during labour, in some cases ending in delivering unattended within the hospital. An example is the case of a woman who waited at the out-patients from 5am to 4pm before being admitted to the labour ward, ending up with a stillborn child. Women complained of being admitted in overcrowded wards and sharing of beds; up to three women with their babies sharing one bed, even when some of them were still bleeding, which exposed them to potential risk of infection, including HIV and Hepatitis B. Detaining of women for non-payment of hospital charges obviously contributes to congestion in hospital wards.

There were complaints of frequent lack of essential medicines, equipment, commodities and supplies in public health facilities resulting in denial of services to the needy. It was common in most public facilities for patients to be asked to purchase medicines, gloves and dressings, besides being referred to private institutions for specialised radiological and ultrasound diagnostic examinations. Essential resources for effective provision of sexual and reproductive health services were lacking in many health facilities. For example, many lacked the drugs needed for post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) following sexual abuse including rape. The Inquiry established that non-availability of family planning commodities was a fundamental barrier to accessing comprehensive family planning in Kenya, this being illustrated by the frequent stock outs of commodities. There were complaints of frequent shortages of various contraceptives which denied clients a wide choice of family planning methods.

Several witnesses complained of negligent actions by doctors and midwives, for example, forgetting items such as surgical instruments or swabs in a patient’s abdomen; performing procedures such as hysterectomy without prior informed consent; poorly managed labour leading to ruptured uterus, maternal morbidities such as VVF and RVF, intra-uterine foetal death or a mentally handicapped child,. Other examples of negligent actions or omissions were performing episiotomy and failing to repair it, and failure to recognise accidental injury during surgery and failing to repair it immediately. There were women who complained that not enough information was given to them about the various diagnostic and treatment modalities they had been subjected to by health providers. In particular, there was inadequate information given to the patients before and after surgical procedures.

 The Report cites an article published in The Daily Nation Newspaper of 18th January 2011 on a case of maternal death associated with abortion:

“A woman aged 40 years who was held at Murang’a police station for allegedly procuring an abortion died after she developed complications while in the police cells. The Police said the woman was reported to have terminated the pregnancy by swallowing some chemical, and locked her up in a cell at the police station. They said she later developed complications and was being rushed to hospital when she died en route.”

 It can be argued that had the police taken the woman to a health care professional, instead of holding her in remand at the police station, she most likely would have survived. In other words this was a case of preventable death associated with denial of enjoyment of right to health. Yet this was after the promulgation of the Constitution of Kenya 2010 which has relaxed the rigidity on termination of pregnancy that existed previously. Article 26 (4) permits safe abortion if in the opinion of a trained health professional, there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law.

What can be learned from the above case studies?

Clearly, they demonstrate that Kenya has yet to address the well known factors and barriers that have over the years sustained the prevailing high rates of maternal and newborn mortality and morbidity. Maternal health services that are inaccessible, non-affordable and of poor quality, have been perpetuated by several serious weaknesses in the health systems- inadequate capacity in terms of human resources and health infrastructure, negligence and malpractices especially among over-worked de-motivated health service providers, and various socio-cultural barriers, among others. Addressing these barriers is a prerequisite to meeting local and international goals and targets including the Vision 2030 and Millennium Development Goals.


[i] A Report of the Public Inquiry into Violations of Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights in Kenya

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Is it time for a comprehensive Reproductive Health Act for Kenya?

A Presentation made at the Kenya Medical Association State of Maternal Mortality in Kenya Conference held at the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, Thursday 15th September, 2011

Champions are Urgently Needed for Accelerated Reduction of Maternal Mortality in Africa

“It is my aspiration that health finally will be seen not as a blessing to be wished for, but as a human right to be fought for.” Kofi Annan, Former UN Secretary General

Introduction: overcoming resistance to change

There is an urgent need for champions to push for accelerated reduction of the shockingly high maternal death rates in African countries, the general improvement of maternal health in the region, and the attainment of the fifth Millennium Development Goal (MDG5). One of the major challenges for the champions will be overcoming resistance to change. Resistance to change is to be found among all levels of society, among health professionals, including obstetricians and gynaecologists; midwives; medical and nursing training institutions; statutory regulatory bodies; professional societies; health management and administration, as well as political leadership and community in general.

But why is there resistance to change? People fear change, and in medicine there is the familiar tradition of: “We’ve always done it this way.” People harbour doubts as to whether innovations actually work better than the traditional practices. There are legal obstacles, including roles and practices prescribed in laws and regulations. There are limited human, financial and infrastructure resources to sustain application of new practices; and there are socio-cultural factors, gender roles including the status of women in society, that function as barriers to change.

Maternal mortality

Recent assessments of maternal mortality show that across Eastern and Southern Africa, “the most basic and natural act of giving life causes the death of almost 10 women every hour” . In 2008, some 79,000 women died in the region in the process of pregnancy and childbirth, accounting for more than one fifth of all such deaths in the world. According to the 2011 UNICEF Report, the latest estimated figures for maternal mortality ratio in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Tanzania are 490, 810, 440 and 580 respectively . These unacceptably high levels of maternal deaths make it extremely doubtful that these countries will succeed in reaching all the indicators of achieving improved maternal health (MDG5) in the next 4 years.

There is need for intensified advocacy, especially towards the recognition of women’s constitutional right to life and health, and therefore their right to quality reproductive health services, which ensure that every pregnancy is wanted; all pregnant women and their infants have access to skilled care; and that every woman is able to reach a functioning health facility to obtain appropriate care in the event of complications. After all, going through pregnancy and childbirth safely is what every woman should expect.

We know that even though complications of pregnancy cannot always be prevented, deaths from these complications can be averted. Up to 75 percent of all maternal deaths can be averted if women received timely and appropriate medical care. Maternal deaths from obstetric complications can be markedly reduced if skilled health personnel and essential supplies, equipment and facilities are available. And yet, apart from Malawi, where 54 percent of births were reported to have been attended by a skilled birth attendant, in the East African countries nearly 60% of all births take place unattended by a skilled attendant. Among the poorest women the majority of birth take place unattended by skilled personnel, the proportions being 72 percent in Uganda, 74 percent in Tanzania, and as high as 80 percent in Kenya .

The direct causes of maternal deaths have long been known, and so are the interventions to prevent them. We know what works and what does not work. Clearly, what is lacking is the commitment, at all levels, to act; to make the reduction of maternal mortality a high priority; and to reflect this in resource allocations to health services, especially for reproductive health services. Professor Mahmoud Fathalla of Egypt once observed that: “Women are not dying because of diseases we cannot treat. They are dying because societies have yet to make the decision that their [women’s] lives are worth saving.” When will our countries decide?

Maternal morbidity

It has been said (though there is want of data) that for every maternal death there are up to thirty times as many cases of pregnancy related illness or disability . The lack of or poor access to, obstetric care is responsible for a major burden of maternal morbidity in African countries. Among such morbidities are the obstetric fistulae, vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF) and/or recto-vaginal fistula (RVF) which are usually the result of neglected obstructed labour.

Let me again illustrate this with the case of one of my patients, by name Halima. During my time in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the KNH, in the 1970s, I happened to be one of two gynaecologists with special interest in the treatment of urinary incontinence, the commonest cause of which was VVF. Urinary incontinence is one of the most frightful afflictions of human kind and often results in the sufferer becoming a social outcast. Yet, this condition, which arises mainly from prolonged obstruction of labour during childbirth, is a preventable problem if only all pregnant women had access to skilled care during labour and delivery. At any given time there were one or two such cases in my ward. Halima was one of two teenage girls transferred from the Wajir District Hospital in North-Eastern Kenya, with a very large VVF; almost the entire anterior vaginal wall was missing. We had to repair this defect in stages over several weeks using grafts from other parts of her body. The two girls almost became permanent residents of Ward 23 in the old KNH building, and to occupy them they were provided with knitting kits and encouraged to make whatever they fancied. One morning, as I conducted my ward round Halima presented me with a blue knitted sweater. I was deeply moved by this deed, and for several days pondered over it. I guessed this was her way of expressing gratitude, perhaps for our compassion towards her, because she was, as yet, not cured!

Several lessons can be learned from Halima’s case. Clearly, in terms of addressing her problem, our surgical treatment came at the tail end of a chain of events that resulted in a damage that should never have happened in the first place. Halima was barely 14, too young to be anyone’s wife and to have begun childbearing. She was subjected to the severest type of female circumcision (infibulation), and given off for marriage shortly afterwards. In both situations her human and reproductive rights had been denied; she had been abused by the societal norms she lived under. In fact female genital mutilation (FGM), forced early marriage, and coerced sex were tantamount to gender-based violence. Then when Halima became pregnant she was further denied the right to health care- an opportunity to have access to skilled attendance during the antenatal period, as well as care during childbirth. How sad it is to note that, today, four decades later, many African young women continue to live under conditions that pose as much reproductive risk to their lives and wellbeing as it was for Halima.

Abortion, a fertile ground for change

In Africa, despite the fact that induced abortion takes place among women from all levels of society, the brunt of abortion-related morbidity and mortality is borne almost exclusively by the young and poor women. This perhaps explains the dilatory approach to the prevention of such mortality, where leaders don’t want to take the obvious step towards prevention of unsafe abortion. After all, it does not affect their social class. As such unsafe abortion has continued to be a major contributor to the unacceptably high levels of maternal morbidity and mortality rates that prevail in Africa. It continues to be one of the formidable challenges to the achievement of MDG5 of improving maternal health by 2015.

Yet, it is obvious that stringent abortion laws have not deterred women in need from going through with an abortion; what such laws have achieved is to push many hapless women to undergo unsafe procedures with consequent high rates of morbidity and mortality. For such women, the desire to do away with an unwanted pregnancy can be so intense that they will avail themselves of this last resort despite the law, even the attendant risk to their lives. The procedure of medical termination of pregnancy is simple, short and safe when undertaken in the open, by trained persons; on the other hand clandestine abortion, usually performed by unskilled operators, is expensive, unsafe and life threatening.

The persistence of unsafe abortion in Africa is, ultimately, perpetuated by two key factors: (a) the restrictive laws against termination of pregnancy; and (b) the limited or lack of access to adequate abortion care services. Criminalisation of abortion in majority of African countries is something inherited from the colonial laws, despite the fact that the law has since decriminalised the procedure in the colonial “mother countries” (United Kingdom 1967; France 1975; Italy 1978; Spain 1985; Belgium 1990).

Increasing access to contraception is an effective primary intervention for the prevention of unsafe abortion. However, it is feared that induced abortion may continue being the only means of birth control for many women in some parts of Africa. These are women with very limited access to contraception, who include adolescents and youths who, supposedly on moralistic grounds, are denied not only the services but also information on sexuality.

“Abortion is legal but we just don’t know it”

Sadly, many of the women who suffer unsafe abortion live in countries where abortion is sanctioned under certain conditions, but they are unaware of this provision, or, because of various reasons, they cannot access safe abortion services in their countries. For example, the penal codes in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania sanction abortion for the preservation of the mother’s life and mental health. The Constitution of Kenya (2010) has recognised legal abortion, even though abortion remains generally restricted in Kenya . It is therefore incumbent upon health care providers to ensure women do have access to what they are legally entitled.

The above notwithstanding, it is regrettable that women continue to go through unsafe abortion even when they qualify for legal termination of pregnancy. In many cases this can be blamed on the health service provider, for example, ignorance of the law, negative attitudes and biases, and conscientious objection to termination of pregnancy; or the lack of appropriate facilities including trained providers. Service providers need to recognise their ethical and legal obligations to provide women in need of abortion with appropriate information on where safe services may be obtained. Medical policies and practices can also serve to restrict access to legal abortion, for example, insistence on unnecessary procedures /practices such hospitalisation. Access to services can also be restricted due to community related factors, especially lack of awareness about the law and facilities that provide legal abortion services.

Conclusion

Clearly, time has come for a paradigm shift in the attitudes of health workers and all others who come in touch with women seeking termination of pregnancy, from the attitude driven by deep-rooted suspicion to one of considerate review of all evidence present in order to ensure women are not denied safe abortion services to which they are legally entitled. The realization of unlimited implementation of existing legal and policy provisions ought to be a key goal of advocacy groups, including the Champions for reproductive rights in Africa.

Women have the right to safe abortion services within the law

Kenya’s constitution confers to all citizens the right to the highest attainable standard of health, which includes the right to health care services, including reproductive health care (Article 43 (1a)). Further, Article 26(4) specifies grounds upon which abortion may be legally provided; specifically, “if in the opinion of a trained health professional there is need for emergency treatment, or the life or health of the mother is in danger, or if permitted by any other written law”. Safe abortion services, as provided by law, therefore need to be available, provided by well-trained health personnel supported by policies, regulations and a health systems infrastructure, including equipment and supplies, so that women can have rapid access to these services (WHO).

It is more efficient to provide legal safe abortion services within the context of Comprehensive Abortion Care (CAC) system that aims to reduce the risk of unwanted (unplanned) pregnancy. Morbidity and mortality related to abortion can be prevented at the following three levels: (a) Primary level- Prevent unwanted pregnancy by providing contraceptive information and counselling, and increasing access to contraceptive services. (b) Secondary level- Prevent unsafe abortion through provision of counselling in early pregnancy, respecting women’s informed choice, and ensuring access to safe medical termination of pregnancy for those who so choose. (c) Tertiary level- Provide post-abortion care (PAC) services: clinical management of complications of unsafe abortion, and prevention of future unsafe abortion through contraceptive counselling and services.
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What are the prospects of achieving ‘skilled attendance’ for all births in Africa?

Ensuring that every birth is attended by skilled health personnel by 2015 is what is expected of all countries if they are to achieve Millennium Development Goal (MDG) 5. But how feasible is this for most African countries? According to WHO, skilled attendance at birth remains drastically low in sub-Saharan Africa; only about 42% of the childbirths are assisted by a skilled attendant in the Africa region, some countries registering as low as 5%[i]. This is against the target of 80% of births being assisted by a skilled attendant by 2015 if the goal of reducing maternal mortality rate by three quarters (between 1990 and 2015), is to be achieved.

Skilled attendance at the time of delivery is an important variable that influences the birth outcome and the health of the mother and her infant. Skilled attendance can be accessed at health facilities or through domiciliary or community midwifery. At both levels appropriate medical attention can reduce the risks of obstetric complications that increase the risk of morbidity and mortality for the mother and her baby.

Figure 1: Maternal mortality ratio by country, 2008

Source: UNICEF, Progress for Children: A Report Card on Maternal Mortality, 2008

Who is a skilled attendant?

A skilled attendant is defined as ‘an accredited health professional – such as a midwife, doctor or nurse – who has been educated and trained to proficiency in the skills needed to manage uncomplicated pregnancies, childbirth and the immediate postnatal period, and in the identification, management and referral of complications in women and newborns’[ii] This definition implies that the term ‘skilled attendant’ should refer exclusively to people with midwifery skills; people who are capable of managing normal deliveries and to diagnose, manage or refer complications. Midwifery skills are a defined set of cognitive and practical skills that enable the individual to provide basic health care services throughout the continuum of pregnancy, childbirth and postnatal period and also to provide first aid for obstetric complications and emergencies, including life-saving measures when needed. In 2006, a consensus was reached on what are essential competencies of the skilled attendant in the Africa Region of WHO[iii]. It should be noted that the definition of skilled attendant does not include Traditional Birth Attendants (TBA), trained or untrained.

Until the mid-1990s, the term “trained attendant” was commonly used in national statistics, which tended to lump both professionals and non-professionals (e.g. trained TBAs) together, as long as they had received some “training”. However, training does not necessarily guarantee the acquisition of the needed skills. From 1996 onwards, the word “skilled” has been employed to recognise competent use of knowledge[iv].

Effectiveness of ‘skilled attendants’ depends not just on their knowledge and competency, but also on the environment in which they function. Skilled attendance should therefore not be considered purely in terms of skills of the service providers but also the environment in which they work- physical space, equipment, supplies, drugs and transport for referral of obstetric emergencies. The political, policy and socio-cultural environment can also enable or prevent effectiveness of ‘skilled attendance’[v].

Does skilled attendance at birth lower maternal deaths?

There is no direct scientific evidence to show that skilled attendance lowers maternal mortality; however, comprehensive analyses of the factors behind the successful reduction of maternal deaths in countries such as Malaysia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Honduras clearly indicate that a central feature in all of them was the presence of a skilled attendant at delivery. The experience from those countries is what is currently guiding maternal and neonatal health policy and programming; especially what was done to ensure high availability of skilled birth attendants, as well as the kind of environment that ensured their effectiveness[vi].

Two important lessons from these experiences are (a) achieving skilled attendance for all requires attention to the political, social and legal actions that address women’s human rights and equity, this being especially important if skilled attendance is to impact on the health outcomes of poor people; and (b) development of skilled attendants must go side by side with the creation of an enabling environment, including putting in place resources that are needed for emergency obstetric care and responsive referral systems.

Will skilled attendance result in reduced maternal deaths in Africa?

According to WHO ensuring skilled care at every birth can reduce the global burden of 536 000 maternal deaths, 3 million stillbirths and 3.7 million newborn deaths each year[vii]. Half of the 75 countries in which 97% of all maternal deaths worldwide occur are located in the sub-Saharan Africa. Within Africa, the eastern region has the lowest proportions of skilled attendance at birth (about 34%). In addition, enormous disparities exist within countries: poor women in rural and urban areas are far less likely than their wealthier counterparts to receive skilled care during childbirth. For example, the 2008-9 Kenya Demographic and Health Survey showed that women in the highest wealth quintile were nearly four times more likely to have been attended by a doctor or nurse/midwife, at their last delivery[viii].

The countries of sub-Saharan Africa are faced by numerous challenges in their effort to ensure skilled attendance at birth. These can be coalesced into the following two: developing the needed human resources for health, and creating an enabling environment for effective skilled attendance.

  • · Development of human resources for health- skilled attendants

Human resource for health is a key component of the health care system, which requires efficient mechanisms for recruitment, deployment, retention and supervision of the workforce, as well as ensuring accountability of service providers.

Five years ago, WHO estimated that to extend coverage of maternal and newborn care in the following 10 years (to 2015), 75 countries[ix] needed at least 334,000 additional midwives (or equivalent skilled attendants), as well as additional training for 140,000 existing professionals providing first-level care and of 27,000 doctors who are not currently qualified to provide back-up care[x]. According to these estimates the current health workforce in some of the most affected countries in sub-Saharan Africa would need to be scaled up by as much as 140% for the country to attain the Millennium Development Goals.

Health worker shortage in sub-Saharan Africa derives from many causes, including inadequate planning and investment for pre-service training, inadequate deployment, loss of trained personnel due to poor work conditions, internal and external movement, career changes among health workers, premature retirement, morbidity and premature mortality.  In some countries trained health workers remain unemployed for long periods because of inadequate budgetary allocations to ministries of health.

A recent study[xi] focused on 12 African countries[xii] has found alarming workforce shortages in all the countries, with the current rate of increase in health workforce density being much slower than what WHO considers necessary for achievement of desired levels of coverage of key health interventions[xiii] (a minimum density of 2.28 health workers per 1000 population). The study has suggested a variety of complementary, shorter-term responses if countries were to aspire to achieving international goals, among them, adoption of aggressive retention policies, e.g. improving the remuneration and working conditions of health workers; addressing current unemployment of trained professionals; and adoption of task-shifting[xiv] practices where necessary. However, all these should be viewed as stop-gap measures while countries further developed/expanded local pre-service training opportunities.

  • · Creating an enabling environment for skilled attendance

An enabling environment can be viewed more broadly to include the political, policy and socio-cultural context in which skilled attendance must operate (structure), as well as the more proximate factors such as pre- and in-service training, supervision and deployment, and health systems financing (inputs). Within the political and policy environment are considerations such as legislation/regulations which govern scope of professional activities, but more important is the level of government commitment and stability which are crucial to smooth functioning of health services. The social/cultural environment will include cultural factors which may influence acceptability and effectiveness of service providers and the services they provide; for example, Muslim societies may object to male skilled attendants (male doctors and nurses), examining women. Socio-economic status, gender and women empowerment are other important factors with strong bearing on the performance and effectiveness of skilled attendants. Finally, effectiveness of the service providers is enhanced by responsible management systems, functional infrastructure, equipment/ supplies, management and health information systems, communication and transport mechanisms. Above all, availability of the above depends on sound planning and financing of the health sector.

Conclusion

The countries of sub-Saharan Africa are faced by numerous challenges in their effort to ensure skilled attendance at birth, particularly the serious human resource shortages and weak health systems. Recent assessments of progress towards MDG 5 suggest that most sub-Saharan African countries have made only modest progress, with at least 8 countries[xv] demonstrating negative change[xvi]. These findings cast a lot of doubt as to whether many sub-Saharan African countries will achieve skilled attendance for all births in the remaining period to 2015. Factors such as limited funding for health services, and inequities in reaching all pregnant women irrespective of wealth status, are some of the major reasons for inadequate progress.

There is data to show that the current number of health workers in most countries is insufficient to meet population health needs[xvii]. Addressing this challenge will require expansion of pre-service training of nurses, midwives and doctors, with a view to increase health worker densities in order to meet the target level of 2.28 physicians, nurses and midwives per 1000 population. Considering that pre-service training is clearly a longer-term solution, a variety of complementary, shorter-term responses, (as discussed above), will need to be considered.

As a way forward African governments need to create health policies and necessary legislation in support of delivery of essential maternal health interventions. Such policies are important building blocks of a well functioning health system- including financing of health services, and ensuring equitable access to skilled attendants for all pregnant women. Despite the fact that total official development assistance (ODA) to maternal, newborn and child health programmes increased by 64%, from US$2.1 billion in 2003 to almost US$3.5 billion in 2006[xviii], expenditures on health in most African countries remain far less than the threshold below which it is difficult to ensure access to basic services (US$45 per person). As a result, out-of-pocket health expenditures in sub-Saharan African countries range from 6% in Namibia to 62% in Chad[xix]. Faced with heavy out-of-pocket expenses, many families either avoid seeking care altogether, or risk impoverishment when they do so. Under such scenario ill-health contributes to, and perpetuates, poverty in sub-Saharan Africa[xx].

Related links:


[i] WHO/AFRO. Consensus on Essential Competencies of Skilled attendant in the African Region Report of regional consultation, Brazzaville, 27th February-1st March 2006 WHO Africa Regional Office, 2006

[ii] WHO/UNFPA/UNICEF/World Bank Statement (1999). Reduction of maternal mortality: a joint statement. Geneva: WHO.

[iii] WHO/AFRO. Consensus on Essential Competencies of Skilled attendant in the African Region Report of regional consultation, Brazzaville, 27th February-1st March 2006 WHO Africa Regional Office, 2006

[iv] Starrs A (1997). The Safe Motherhood Action Agenda: Priorities for the Next Decade. New

York: Inter-Agency Group for Safe Motherhood and Family Care International.

[v] Wendy J Graham, Jacqueline S Bell and Colin HW Bullough Can skilled attendance at delivery reduce maternal mortality in developing countries ? Studies in Health Services Organisation & Policy, 17, 2001 pp97-129

[vi] Wim Van Lerberghe and Vincent De Brouwere Reducing maternal mortality in a context of poverty Studies in Health Services Organisation and Policy, 17, 2001

[viii] Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) and ICF Macro. 2010. Kenya Demographic and Health

Survey 2008-09. Calverton, Maryland: KNBS and ICF Macro.

[ix] Half of these countries are in sub-Saharan Africa.

[x] WHO. 2005. World Health Report 2005. Geneva: WHO.

[xii] Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Madagascar, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania and Zambia

[xiii] World Health Organization, The world health report 2006.

[xiv] The shifting of certain tasks from professional that require longer-term training to those requiring less intensive training which may be more affordable, for example permitting midwives to administer perenteral drugs, to manually remove the placenta, to remove retained products of conception, and to resuscitate newborns.

[xv] Chad, Cote d’Ivoire, Kenya, Lesotho, Malawi, Nigeria, Senegal.

[xvi] Countdown to 2015, 2008 Report Tracking Progress in Maternal, Newborn & Child Survival New York, United Nations Children’s Fund, 2008.

[xviii] Note: The total amount of aid for maternal, newborn and child health-related activities represents just 3% of total ODA

[xix] Adam Leive, Ke Xu. Coping with out-of-pocket health payments: empirical evidence from 15 African countries. Bulletin of the World Health Organization Volume 86, Number 11, November 2008, 849-856

A commentary on Unsafe Abortion in Africa

Unsafe abortion remains a major contributor to the unacceptably high levels of maternal morbidity and mortality rates that prevail in Africa. It also continues to be one of the formidable challenges to the achievement of Millennium Development Goal 5 of improving maternal health by 2015. This is despite the many meetings and conferences that have addressed the issue over the last four decades, one of the earliest being the IPPF Regional Conference on Family Welfare and Development in Africa, Ibadan, Nigeria, August/September, 1976, where I was privileged to present a paper entitled Abortion in Africa[1]. Perhaps the most recent meeting is the Ipas[2] sponsored conference in Ghana (November 8-11, 2010), entitled “Keeping Our Promise: Addressing Unsafe Abortion in Africa”.

The persistence of unsafe abortion in Africa is, ultimately, perpetuated by two key factors: (a) the restrictive laws against termination of pregnancy; and (b) the limited or lack of access to adequate abortion services. Criminalisation of abortion in majority of African countries is something inherited from the colonial laws, despite the fact that the law has since decriminalised the procedure in the colonial “mother countries” (United Kingdom 1967; France 1975; Italy 1978; Spain 1985; Belgium 1990). On the other hand, it can be observed that passing of laws for or against abortion has little effect on the numbers of abortions that take place; in fact, the only difference is that the patterns of morbidity and mortality associated with abortion change. Stringent laws against abortion will not deter women in need from going through with an abortion, the only thing such laws achieve is to push many of them to undergo unsafe procedures with consequent high rates of morbidity and mortality. The procedure of medical termination of pregnancy is simple, short and safe when undertaken in the open, by trained persons; however, carried out in secrecy, usually by unskilled operators, it is expensive, unsafe and life threatening.

Obviously, like many other freedoms- legalisation of abortion may be abused, when abortion becomes a primary method of birth control, as happened in the former USSR. Increased access to contraception since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has led to a reduction in the numbers of abortions in Russia. However, it should be realised that induced abortion may still be the only means of birth control for many women in some parts of Africa, i.e. women who have very limited access to contraception, including adolescents and youths who are denied not only the services but also information on sexuality, on moralistic grounds. For such women, the desire to do away with an unwanted pregnancy can be so intense that they will avail themselves of this last resort despite the law, or the attendant risk to their lives. Sadly, many of these women live in countries where penal codes do sanction abortion under certain conditions but they are unaware of this provision; or, for various reasons, they cannot access safe abortion services in their countries.

Evidence from the Demographic and Health Surveys, over the last three decades, shows that women (and men) in most parts of Africa have increasingly taken to contraceptive practice. For anyone who chooses to practice contraception the hope is that it would not fail her or him. The shock of the discovery that this is not so, though infrequent, can drive the hapless individual seeking termination of the pregnancy. For most people it follows logic that if contraception is acceptable, then consideration for abortion should follow where there is failure- this is why in many countries medical termination of pregnancy is an accepted second line of defence against unwanted pregnancy.

Finally, in addressing the issue of unsafe abortion particular focus is needed on ensuring equity in access to health care, especially for the poor and marginalised communities, who are the main victims of quacks in backstreet clinics. Despite the absence of supportive data at this moment, it is highly possible that in many African countries, considerably more induced abortions occur among the wealthier and more mature women than among the poor young single women, that are often reported from public institutions. It is the latter that sustain Africa’s high abortion-related maternal mortality rates, and who will make it impossible to attain national and international goals, if they are left ‘out of the loop’.

Related Link

On The Abortion Question

[1] Mati JKG. Abortion in Africa. In Family Welfare and Development  in Africa. Proceedings of IPPF Regional Conference, Ibadan, Nigeria, August/September,1976.

[2] http://www.ipas.org/Library/News/News_Items/Keeping_Our_Promise_Addressing_Unsafe_Abortion_in_Africa.aspx Conference co-sponsored by FEMNET, Ghana Ministry of Health, IPPF Africa Regional Office, Marie Stopes International and the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa. A BBC interview on this conference is available on http://www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice/africa/2010/11/101109_ghana_abortion_conference.shtml

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