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Column: 'I came face to face with the reality of childbirth in Ethiopia'

Every year, 25,000 women die in childbirth in Ethiopia, writes Donnacha Maguire, who says money alone will not stop women from dying, only people working together will do that.

New born baby in Yirgalem Hospital in Ethiopia.
New born baby in Yirgalem Hospital in Ethiopia.
Image: (VSOIreland)

BETWEEN LIFE AND death is how childbirth is often described in Ethiopia and across the African continent. Every year in Ethiopia, over 25,000 women lose their lives during childbirth and a further 400,000 have significant medical complications.

Ethiopia’s maternal mortality rate is 637 deaths per 100,000 live births. In Ireland, while the birth of a child is a nerve wracking experience for many families, the risk of death for mother or child isn’t as big a threat where the maternal mortality rate eight deaths per 100,000 live births.

Basic equipment and a smell that lingered

On a visit to Yirgalem Hospital last month to meet with VSO volunteer, Dr McCauley, I came face to face with the reality of childbirth in Ethiopia. The hospital lacked basic equipment that would be seen in even the smallest Irish hospital and a smell lingered throughout. As we were filming, an expectant mother delivered twins with complications. They needed to be brought to a larger hospital nearby and we were their only option.

When the babies stabilised at the larger hospital Dr McCauley informed us that they had been both born with HIV but added ‘at least they are alive’. Life is precious in Ethiopia and for a mother and twin babies to all survive childbirth is a major achievement.

The question now is –  how do we ensure that fewer women and babies die in childbirth? Financial aid alone cannot fix this. Just throwing money at this and other development issues doesn’t work.

Training and upskilling is key

VSO knows that the best and simplest way to reduce maternal and child mortality is to ensure that expectant mothers have the right support during pregnancy and at the moment of birth. As part of an agreement with the Ethiopian government, VSO has agreed to train over 8,635 midwives, 233 anaesthetists and obstetricians by 2020.

By sending volunteers such as Dr Mary McCauley or midwife Susan Davies-Jones to work with local Ethiopian health professionals, local capacity to deal with these issues can be hugely expanded. Because local capacity is built and the skills can be passed on, the solution is self-perpetuating.

Working in Yirgalem General Hospital, Mary McCauley is at the coalface. Her role is to ensure that local professionals have the skills needed to deliver babies safely and ensure that more mothers live.

She doesn’t seek to replace local Ethiopians but instead trains and mentors them to be better health professionals, adhering to best practice and sharing their skills and ideas with each other.

Seeing the reality of the situation, up close

‘Statistics are only numbers. To be here, it really brings it home’ said Dr McCauley.

‘Since we have done the training in our hospital, we have seen a reduction in the mortality rates of women and babies. Personally and professionally, it’s the best thing I have done so far,’ added Mary.

VSO is always looking for experienced health professionals to volunteer because as Mary puts it ‘the need is so great’. But VSO is looking at the bigger picture. It doesn’t just want to deal with maternal death rates in 2013 or 2014 but seeks to find a long term sustainable solution. That’s where the power of volunteers comes in. Money alone may not be able to stop women dying but people working together to build something bigger than themselves for the longer term can.

(Via YouTube/VSOIreland)

VSO is an international development organisation that works through volunteers to fight poverty and its causes. It recruits experienced professional volunteers to share their skills, experiences and knowledge with local people in Africa, Asia and the Pacific to build resilience and capacity. Learn more about VSO by attending its next information event on the 27 July at 2pm in the Irish Aid Centre, O’Connell Street. Click here to register.

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About the author:

Donnacha Maguire

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