Former carpenter turned doctor highlights high maternal mortality rates in PNG | Pacific Beat

Former carpenter turned doctor highlights high maternal mortality rates in PNG

Former carpenter turned doctor highlights high maternal mortality rates in PNG

Updated 7 May 2014, 17:17 AEST

The number of women dying because of complications during pregnancy and childbirth across the world is down - in new figures released by the United Nations today.

The report found that 11 countries - including East Timor - that had had high levels of maternal mortality in 1990 have succeeded in reducing maternal mortality rates by 75 per cent.

But in Papua New Guinea it's a different story, with estimates that each day, five women die during childbirth.

Another report out this week from the NGO Save the Children revealed PNG was one of the worst places in the world to be a mother - ranking 164 out of 173 countries.

But with Mother's Day this Sunday, the focus is being put back on what more needs to be done to save the lives of women.

Reporter: Catherine Graue

Speakers: Dr Barry Kirby, Obstetrics and Gynaecology Specialist

Blossum Gilmour, CARE PNG's Assistant Country Director

GRAUE: The statistics themselves are stark - and yet with many deaths not even registered, they don't even begin to reveal the full picture.

DR BARRY KIRBY: Our maternal mortality rate in PNG is 500 per 100,000 people, live births I should say and when you compare that with Australia about it's about 7 to 8 per 100,000 live births in Australia.

GRAUE: Dr Barry Kirby is an Australian - whose life took a dramatic change when he helped a gravely sick woman he came across on the side of the road, while working in PNG as a carpenter in 1990.

The experience prompted him to undergo a medical degree and has spent the years since, addressing the problem of maternal mortality in Milne Bay - a province with even higher rates of death during childbirth.

DR BARRY KIRBY: And in Milne Bay, where I'm working, it's actually a lot worse, because it must be around 700 mark or even higher - because there's a lot of places there still isolated and I know for sure there are women passing away, but they're never registered.

GILMOUR: And it will take a long time for those statistics to turn around. The situation in PNG has slipped significantly in the last 20 years.

GRAUE: That's Blossum Gilmour - PNG's Assistant Country Director for the NGO, CARE.

GILMOUR: It is incredibly complicated and there are a lot of different factors that come into play, so the remoteness of the population, the costs in PNG, there's an ageing workforce, and so there's actually a decreasing number of health workers available, and the gap in the education.

GRAUE: Dr Kirby says one of the most common causes of death during childbirth is severe blood loss.

KIRBY: A mother can lose 600 mililitres a minute, if the uterus doesn't contract, so she's only got about 3 or 4 minutes and she'll be passing away on you, and so you've got to act very quickly, you immediately call for help, you're senses are heightened, you realise there's danger and you'll have to act.

GRAUE: But CARE's Blossum Gilmour says many aren't even in the care of health workers when they give birth.

GILMOUR: You have to provide services close to where people live and that's something that the government is trying to do with the assistance of donor agencies, like the Australian Aid Program, which is supporting the midwifery programs around the country to produce more midwives that can then travel out these areas - but there has been such a gap in that midwifery education, that it will probably take 7 to 10 years before we can start to see midwives out in the most remote areas of the country.

KIRBY: I guess the major factor in Papua New Guinea is that a lot of the births are village births, a woman having her first child would often I found would often go down to the health centre, and have her baby, her first baby in the health centre. And if that was OK, if that went all right and there were no problems, she would sort of use that as the litmus test for the next baby. And so the next baby, she would probably most likely was going to have that in village, because it was more convenient for her, she didn't have walk down, there was no cost involved and somebody could look after the children while she was there. And so it was very convenient for her to be in her own surroundings. She would expect to be bleeding after the baby was born and the placenta came out and she would expect some blood flow, because she's experienced that before.

But when it continues, and she's there and she's lying there, and she saying well, it stopped last time, it'll stop this time and she's hoping and hoping it's going to stop, but it doesn't and she slowly drifts off.

GRAUE: Dr Kirby's found that while remoteness and distance from health centres is also part of the reason women don't go to health centres, there are other significant factors.

KIRBY: What they were telling me, was that they weren't coming down for various reasons, but one of the reasons was that they didn't have anything, they didn't have any clothes, nice clothes for themselves or nice clothes for the babies and so they felt very embarrassed, embarrassed of their poverty really and they're no different to any other mother who wants everything right for the time of the birth of the child.

GRAUE: His solution was to provide them with baby packs.

KIRBY: We have laplap for the mother, panties and soap and towels, even a bed sheet and for the babies, have nappies of course and singlets and pants. And we have soap and powder and oil and other baby towel and it's all wrapped in baby bath.

It's been having a difference, we are seeing that mothers are coming down, they're very appreciative of the packs, and we're finding that in some of the centres now, the delivery rates have gone up to 80 percent, or supervised deliveries have increased to 80 percent in one case to 100 per cent.

GRAUE: But despite the positive results, Dr Kirby still believes education is the key.

KIRBY: I think if a woman gets to an education and she continues it through to high school, then she is less likely to get married very early in life. She'll have her children a little bit later and so that the dangers that exist with that early pregnancy are not there.

CARE'S Blossum Gilmour says they need to change the mindset of women - who don't see pregnancy as a health-related problem, but a normal part of life.

GILMOUR: It's about educating women, should go to health centre in their first tri-mester or as soon as they suspect their pregnant, to have a health check, so that they can make sure that if there are risks of complications, they can be addressed early in the pregnancy, they can get support and the help they need.

This Mothers Day, we'll be focussing on a well balanced diet for mothers, because mothers often prioritise the nutrition needs of the rest of their family, before they're own, so mothers are likely to be anaemic or undernourished going into pregnancy, which then increases the chances they'll have complications during the pregnancy and during child birth.

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