The lives of thousands of expectant mothers in Haiti and the lives of their unborn babies are at risk after the earthquake left the healthcare system in tatters, leaving the women with no choice but to deliver their babies in emergency camps.
Around 37,000 pregnant women are living in the earthquake-hit region. At least 10,000 of them will need delivery services in the coming months, and aid agencies expect that 1,500 will need care for life-threatening complications during delivery.
Even before the earthquake, Haitian women faced the highest risk of dying in childbirth in the region with one in 44 women dying in childbirth compared to one in 8,200 in the UK. In normal circumstances 15 per cent of all pregnant women experience a complication requiring medical interventions but in a disaster situation that percentage is much higher.
Many newborn babies will also be in danger as the first 24 hours of a child’s life are the most vulnerable period for a baby.
Jon Bugge, Save the Children’s Emergencies advisor in Haiti, said: “Hospitals and clinics were destroyed by the earthquake and those that are left are overcrowded, understaffed and have run out of drugs and equipment. We're seeing women giving birth in camps with no one on hand to help if things go wrong.
“One of our aid workers helped a woman in labour in one of the camps who was delivering a breach baby. After taking the woman to three hospitals that were unable to help, she was able to help her to deliver a very underweight baby girl in the UN compound. At the moment many more mums will give birth without that help – and could die or lose their baby.”
Approximately 75 per cent of maternal deaths result from hemorrhage, infection, miscarriage, prolonged or obstructed labour and hypertensive disorders, many of which could be avoided with appropriate medical care. But with limited or no access to health facilities and the additional stress of the emergency situation, pregnant women are at massive risk of complications and death.
Women and girls face other specific risks in disaster zones. Women and girls are more likely to be raped or sexually abused in camps, partly because they often have to wash or go to the toilet in exposed, insecure areas. Specific female needs for items like sanitary towels are often overlooked in the emergency response and they often miss out in aid distributions to men who are stronger.
Sophie Perez, Care’s Country Director in Haiti, said: “Statistics clearly show that women are disproportionately affected in emergencies. We seek to reach the people most in need as quickly as possible, and experience shows that reaching the woman of a particular household first is the best way to accomplish that.”
DEC agencies including CARE and Save the Children are helping pregnant women, new mothers and children by training community health workers, recruiting midwives, and providing safe delivery kits for women and health centres to facilitate safer, cleaner deliveries. They are distributing hygiene kits for women that include soap and toothpaste, and also sanitary towels and underwear for women.
Agencies including Merlin and the Red Cross are at work supporting emergency health services.