Friday, January 13, 2012

Millennium Development Goals: How are we progressing with the maternity goals?

Millennium Declaration
In 2000, 189 nations made a promise to free people from extreme poverty and multiple deprivations. This pledge became the eight Millennium Development Goals to be achieved by 2015. In September 2010, the world recommitted itself to accelerate progress towards these goals.

The 8 Millennium Development Goals are:

1 Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
2 Achieve universal primary education
3 Promote gender equality and empower women
4 Reduce child mortality
5 Improve maternal health
6 Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
7 Ensure environmental sustainability
8 Develop a global partnership for development

Each of these goals has a potential to improve maternity outcomes in the world's poorest countries.  Goals 4 and 5 give direct measures of maternity care.
If you would like to see the UN 2011 table summarising progress, click here.


Readers may wonder what significance the MDGs have in the context in which I practise midwifery.  Private midwifery in and around Melbourne is, surely, for a privileged minority, who are usually healthy, well educated women, and able to pay for the maternity care they choose.

This is true.

Women who plan homebirth in my practice understand that my role includes arranging transfer to hospital if complications are detected.  Well staffed and equipped maternity hospitals are within easy reach by car or ambulance, in most instances.  Availability of appropriate referral services is a key to safe and optimal outcomes, whether the referral is from planned homebirth, or from small primary maternity care units in rural towns.

Women in places where maternal mortality is high may not be within reasonable reach of emergency obstetric services; may face prohibitive costs if they do go to hospital; and often delay in seeking medical intervention.  Their bodies are often weakened by anaemia, malaria, HIV/AIDS, intestinal parasites, and other preventable conditions.  Mothers and babies die from Tetanus, because the mothers have never been vaccinated against Tetanus.   Women do not have access to acceptable family planning measures; child-brides are pregnant before their bodies are fully developed; too many women develop obstetric fistula; and the list goes on.

The challenge that I see in comparing maternity care here in Melbourne, with maternity care in some of the world's most disadvantaged settings, such as Sub-Saharan Africa, or the highlands of Papua New Guinea, is the continuing and increasing reliance on medical and surgical management of birth in the West.  This logically equates to a loss of knowledge, a loss of expertise, in working with natural processes in the childbearing continuum.  The excessive and unnecessary medicalisation of birth and everything related to maternity care, as is seen in mainstream maternity care in Melbourne, will not improve maternal or infant health in less developed countries. Melbourne hospitals are teaching doctors and midwives who will pass contemporary practices on to their students in all parts of the globe.  Melbourne, which has world-best facilities for those who need them, must set an example of best practice in protecting each woman's ability to give birth under her own amazing power - 'Plan A', unless there is a valid reason for 'Plan B'.

For decades we have seen the global impact on the lives of babies of the loss of collective confidence in breastfeeding.  Efforts to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding are required in the rich world if we want to have any impact in poorer countries.  The Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), which in Australia is known as the Baby Friendly Health Initiative, has the expectation of the same high standards in each of the '10 Steps to successful breastfeeding', whether the hospital provides care for those who pay big money, or those who are in low socio-economic settings.

Childbirth is not very different from breastfeeding.  The loss of confidence in natural physiological processes in childbirth, including the spontaneous onset of labour, progress in labour, giving birth without medical pain relief or physical assistance, expelling the placenta, and establishing breastfeeding, to name a few key points, needs to be recognised and rectified in Australian mainstream maternity care.  There is no safer or more reasonable way to proceed with childbirth, for most women, than to do so under the natural, hormonally-driven processes within each woman's body.  Only those for whom a valid reason to interrupt the natural processes will be better off with such intervention.

I expect any readers are likely to be already convinced of these facts, so I won't press on.   

Midwives, we carry the knowledge of normal birth!  We must value that knowledge, and hold on to the skills of working in harmony with women's natural physiological processes, whether in early labour, breastfeeding, birth, or the third stage. 

The 1996 'Care in normal birth' instruction from World Health Organisation, that
"In normal birth there should be a valid reason to interfere with the natural process" is as relevant when applied to the Millennium Development Goals, as it is in a Birth Centre in the rich world.

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