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Maternal Health Practioners Advocate Saving Lives at Birth

A nurse takes care of newborn babies at a hospital in Hefei, Anhui province April 21, 2011.
A nurse takes care of newborn babies at a hospital in Hefei, Anhui province April 21, 2011.

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Vidushi Sinha

The World Health Organization estimates that every minute, a woman dies during pregnancy and millions of others suffer from infections and disease associated with childbearing. To combat this global tragedy, maternal health practitioners from around the world gathered recently at a symposium in Washington to showcase their strategies for saving lives.


The top prize at the Saving Lives at Birth competition, the best of more than 600 international entries, went to Dr. Michelle McIntosh and her colleagues at Monash University in Australia.  They developed an inhalable spray containing the drug oxytocin that reduces postpartum hemorrhaging, or excessive bleeding during childbirth, that accounts for 25 percent of maternal deaths worldwide.

“We will manufacture a dry powder that will contain oxytocin that the mother could inhale into her lungs from where that drug Oxytocin will then be absorbed into the systemic circulation into the bloodstream,” McIntosh said.

The World Health Organization says infections, unsafe abortions and other complications account for another 70 percent of maternal deaths. That is why the presence of a skilled health worker at birth is so important, says Dr. Joy Lawn of the private organization Save the Children.

“So a critical investment globally is (to provide) care at the time of birth:  the right person with the right equipment and the right support.  And that’s the single most important thing that saves mothers' lives,” Lawn said.

Dr. Owen Montgomery of Drexel University in Philadelphia has worked on maternal health in Tanzania, Mozambique and Gambia. His entry in the competition detailed a program that trains experienced midwives on how to make difficult, life-or-death decisions “...to help midwives decide when, in her hands, the best answer is an emergency caesarean delivery. This comes with real anatomy training for women who are already experienced midwives, and then a simulated cesarean delivery on a state of the art mannequin,” Montgomery said.

Vishwajeet Kumar directs the Center for Maternal, Neonatal and Child Health in Shivgarh, in Uttar Pradesh, India -- a country with the world's highest rate of maternal and infant mortality. He says maternal health strategies showcased at the symposium can be effective. "Most of the innovations here, they have a lot of potential.  That can be done with the community -- it can be a game-changer. If without the community, it might have a limited impact," Kumar said.

The World Health Organization says it is committed to achieving one of the U.N.'s so-called Millennium Development Goals:  cutting the number of maternal deaths each year by three-fourths. Health experts say that is an achievable goal.

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