Giving birth is a battle for survival in Afghanistan

Mon Dec 12, 2011 1:02pm EST
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By Jan Harvey

HERAT, Afghanistan (Reuters) - She was 15 years old, heavily pregnant and had travelled eight days on the back of a donkey to reach hospital.

Suffering from seizures and high blood pressure, she died soon after at the Herat Maternity Hospital in western Afghanistan, one of the thousands of women who die in the country each year from causes linked to pregnancy and birth.

"She came at a late stage and we couldn't help her," said Somayeh, a midwife at the hospital and herself just 21. "She was already in a coma."

Politicians, economists and activists from around the world met in Bonn this month to thrash out their vision for battered and impoverished Afghanistan. In addition to the insurgency and violence, it remains the most dangerous place in the world for a woman to have a baby, the latest World Health Organization data shows.

The figures are distressing, but still a marked improvement on the situation 10 years ago. The latest available WHO data, from 2008, shows the number of women who died giving birth had dipped to 1,400 per 100,000 live births from 1,800 in 2000.

The Ministry of Public Health says it has made maternal health a priority, supporting training schemes that have lifted the number of qualified midwives in the country to 3,000 from just 400, and expanding emergency delivery services.

"We have demonstrated that these strategies can work in Afghanistan. They can bring a change in the lives of women and families," acting public health minister Suraya Dalil says. "The challenge is to sustain those achievements."

Charities such as World Vision -- which trained Somayeh -- and Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) also have in-depth programs to help new mothers across Afghanistan.   Continued...

<p>Afghan midwives look at newborn babies at the Razai Foundation Maternity Hospital in Herat province November 30, 2011. REUTERS/Mohammad Shoib</p>