You are here: Louisa Collins Boyle on tackling African maternal and child mortality rates

The World Health Organization reports that 300,000 women die every year from maternal health complications, a figure which equates to roughly the entire population of New Orleans, being wiped out annually. Undoubtedly, this is an alarming fact, yet the causes are largely preventable.

Although significant progress has been made over the past 20 years with global maternal mortality rates dropping by 50 per cent between 1990 and 2010, improving maternal health remains one of the most fundamental issues on the development agenda.  Evidence shows that apart from loss of life, poor maternal health care leads to illness, disability and family devastation, increased child vulnerability and wider social and economic consequences within communities. Sadly  maternal and child mortality – the focus of Millennium Development Goals four and five – continues to lag behind the progress of other areas, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

Clearly, fresh approaches need to be developed to tackle this issue – because no woman should die through the act of giving life; and it’s a fact that healthy mothers and children are fundamental to healthy, economically developed communities.

With 400 women dying in Africa every day due to maternal health complications and more than 350,000 children under five dying every year in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe combined, this region still has some way to go in providing adequate maternal healthcare. Far greater progress has been made in North Africa and other regions with highly trained midwives and health workers, maternal health education, strengthened community structures and access to health facilities being cited as key factors.

St John is well known in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe as healthcare charities doing excellent work, especially in the field of first aid.

Supported by St John International (which supports St John establishments in 42 countries) they have developed a simple yet effective programme, which builds on their strengths as community-based, volunteer-led, healthcare NGOs.

The innovative programme is designed with community consultation and volunteerism at its heart, while the technical core of the programme is based on assessment of the four pillars of supply, demand, access and affordability to gauge whether, for example, lack of awareness; limited access to health facilities, poorly resourced health facilities or lack of trained healthcare professionals are the main issues preventing a community from accessing healthcare.  St John resources are then targeted at the areas of most concern.

The Mother and Child programme’s goal is to reduce preventable infant and maternal mortality through working with women and men in vulnerable communities to increase the practice of good new-born care; increase the uptake of health services by pregnant women; and inform attitudes and practices in sexual and reproductive health. It is hoped the programme will reach a minimum of 50,000 people in the next three years in the five target countries.

400 new and existing St John volunteers who live in the target communities will receive training in these key areas, as well as bicycles and other modes of transport in order to operate mobile clinics in remote areas, bringing healthcare closer to pregnant women.

Through this volunteer-led solution, the St John programme hopes to create a sustainable resource for generations to come, with communities taking ownership of their own success in healthcare improvements and empowering women in the process.  

St John South Africa has been successfully running a similar programme for a number of years with major improvements in maternal and child mortality rates.  St John International Trustee and Head of St John South Africa, Desmond Tutu, spoke about the importance of the programme during a visit to St John International in November 2013:

St John South Africa has done significant work in drastically reducing the maternal and child mortality rates in areas where they have intervened by providing basic care, education and nutrition advice for mothers and babies.

This programme can achieve success because it is addressing very simple healthcare issues and attitudes which ensure that easily preventable maternal and related child deaths are just that, prevented.

Louisa Collins Boyle is Head of Communications and Fundraising at St John International.