Last week, I spotted a headline on the BBC website which gave me hope that years of campaigning on maternal health has at last paid off. A recent study has found that in the last 30 years, maternal deaths around the world have reduced by a third, meaning 150,000 more mothers are living to see their newborn babies.
For years, it seemed the scandal that allows a mother to die every minute – the vast majority of those deaths preventable – was continuing unabated. Despite the promise by world leaders to reduce maternal mortality by three quarters in the Millennium Development Goals – we were seeing virtually no progress.
So this research is fantastic news and shows what can be achieved when governments invest in their health systems and help mothers’ access health care when they really need it. But the headline missed the more depressing findings – that maternal mortality in many of the poorest countries, particularly in Africa, has in fact increased.
This makes me reflect back to my recent trip to Malawi, where I visited pregnant women in rural villages in the south of the country. I heard stories of women going into labour and having to walk 20km to the nearest health clinic, often in the middle of the night. The village had a ‘bicycle ambulance’, which could carry women who were suffering complications in labour or could not walk – but this would still be a three-hour journey along a bumpy dirt road. It was tragic to hear how the last women who was carried on the bike trailer had died en route, leaving another widowed father to care for his family alone.
I also saw how the Malawian government has made huge strides forward in improving their health service. Supported by international donors, they have expanded free health care for mothers and children, and are working through Chiefs to encourage women to travel to health clinics before they go into labour. But the experience showed me the reality behind the statistics, and the challenges to providing health care for all in a country that is desperately poor.
This week’s news story has made me optimistic that the fight against maternal mortality is winnable – but only if donors and governments invest in health care in poor countries. It’s made me more determined to continue the campaign on maternal mortality, to see that governments keep their promise to Africa’s mothers.