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Wednesday 26th October 2016

Haitians risk death in childbirth

16th October 2006

haitibabygirlOn the top floor of the Jude Anne Hospital in Haiti lie the young mothers with their babies.

These are the women who have survived. You would expect to see only happy faces, but the opposite is true. Most of the mothers are exhausted and they are worried about their babies. The mortality rate for children under five is incredibly high.

Haiti has the highest maternal mortality rate in the western hemisphere. In 2004, for every 100,000 births, 523 women died in Haiti (compared to eight maternal deaths for every 100,000 births in Europe).

But in the last two years, the statistics in Haiti have probably worsened due to the increasing violence.

There are fresh traces of blood in the parking lot of the Jude Anne Hospital in Port au Prince, run by Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF), that bear witness to a birth that has just taken place.

Deliveries in the halls, on the stairs or in the hospital parking lot are daily occurrences here. Many women deliver literally on their way to the delivery room. Often they arrive after waiting for hours at another hospital where, ultimately, they get no help.

There are queues of patients outside the hospital every day. Dozens of women come for a medical consultation and family members wait patiently until they are allowed to visit. Because of limited space, each hospital patient is allowed only one visitor.

There are also women who are about to give birth. Wherever you look, in and around the hospital, you see and hear pregnant women kneeling, panting for breath, lying on the ground or leaning against a wall. They call out, wail, or cry.

MSF is urging the Haitian government to offer health care for pregnant women.

Petra Reijners, Head of Mission for MSF in Haiti, said the hospital has been extremely busy since it opened in March 2006 because the hospitals run by the Ministry of Health do not function.

According to Reijners, they lack staff and if they do have personnel, they go on strike. The capital boasts six fully equipped operating theatres currently which are not being used, she said.

"You can get care in the private hospitals, but they are incredibly expensive. As a result, most women deliver at home. However, if they have the slightest complication, they die because they cannot afford any medical care. That's why we opened this hospital. We try to reach the women who live in the city's violent neighborhoods," she said.

At Jude Anne, MSF offers free medical care to pregnant women, but it is responding to such a great need that it may become a victim of its own success. Currently there are more than 30 deliveries a day in the operating room, as one cesarean section after another is carried out.

"We try to limit ourselves to the complicated cases, those with high risk. There are many dangerous pregnancies. Many of them involve women with pre-eclampsia. If they aren't helped, they will die," explains Petra Reijners.

There are also women whose babies are breech and who cannot deliver normally. Without a cesarean section they will not survive, and without medical care at home they will die a certain death. Doctors do not visit the poor, violent neighborhoods as the risk of kidnapping is too great.

Women who perform a home abortion, and then develop an infection, risk their lives when they cannot get any medical help. In Jude Anne they get the care they need - but they are often ashamed of having done their abortion and do not dare come to the hospital.

Haiti's history has included many periods of extreme violence. Despite a ceasefire around the time of the elections in early 2006, the violence continues to flare regularly, kidnappings occur, and health care remains often out of reach.

MSF has been working in Haiti since 1991, and now operates four medical centers in Port au Prince. In Jude Anne, the hospital run by MSF, women with high-risk pregnancies can receive medical care. Those living with the HIV virus are treated with antiretroviral medicines to help prevent mother-to-child transmission of the illness. Victims of sexual violence also receive care.

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