Tackling the age-old problem of maternal mortality through modern technology

A mother and her newborn at the Maternal & Child Health Training Institute for medically needy in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by: Kibae Park / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

Safe Motherhood Week 2016 last week gave us the opportunity to reflect on and talk about the issues surrounding motherhood, and to work together to create simple, innovative solutions to the problems faced by women across the globe. Motherhood shapes our future, and we already have the technology to make it safe — now we must use it smartly.

Pregnancy can be stressful at the best of times. Migraines, cravings, nausea, even the inevitable stretch marks can be causes of consternation, there are classes, scans and appointments to attend, and the prospect of being responsible for the constant care of a tiny human is a daunting one.

Women in developing countries face a very different reality.

“We must create multilevel partnerships within both the public and private sectors, from large tech companies and national governments to smaller health ministries and local NGOs, to reach more and more women with lifesaving technology.”

— Anna Frellsen, CEO, Maternity Foundation

They may have to travel for hours to get to the nearest hospital, navigating hazardous, damaged roads whilst battling the pain of contractions. Their families may have to purchase necessary drugs from their own pockets if the hospital is unable to supply them. They will not have had access to the high standard of antenatal care enjoyed by many European women. And even if they do give birth in hospital, there is a strong chance that neither they nor the baby will survive.

Every day, over 800 women die from causes related to pregnancy or childbirth. According to the World Health Organization, 99 percent of these deaths occur in developing countries, particularly among women living in poorer rural communities, and by the end of this year, over 5 million babies in the developing world will have died before even reaching their first birthday. Skilled care during pregnancy and childbirth could save the lives of many of these women and their newborn children.

Maternal mortality has afflicted women across the globe for millennia. These days, we are fortunate to have access to technology our ancestors could never even have dreamed of, and modern medicine is rapidly evolving, providing potential solutions to illnesses once believed to be incurable. This has led to a 44 percent drop in maternal mortality rates over the last 25 years — but the number is still unacceptably high. Women need antenatal care during pregnancy, skilled care during childbirth, and support in the weeks afterwards — something to which only 51 percent of women in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia have access.

There are, of course, many complex reasons behind the lack of maternal care in developing countries, but the primary issue facing expectant mothers is the poor standard of care even once they reach health care facilities, due to the fact that many carers lack basic qualifications.

In recent years, new technologies have emerged to help tackle some of the issues surrounding obstetric care and to empower both women and health care workers. South African SMS system MomConnect connects mothers to better care by registering pregnancies in a nationwide database and sending out regular, informative text messages to expectant mothers, while also feeding back to the South African health care system so that it can respond to the actual needs of pregnant women.

D-Tree International also empowers health care workers by designing software for delivering protocols on mobile devices, so that health care professionals can make better decisions when encountering an expectant mother or sick child.  

Maternity Foundation’s free Safe Delivery App is a mobile health training tool, based on global clinical guidelines, which reaches out to remote health care workers and provides them with clear instructions and training on how to handle emergencies before, during and after childbirth.

The app gives health care professionals the skills they need to save lives in a simple, accessible way. We have endeavoured to make it as universal as possible, using clear pictures and animations to overcome language and literacy barriers.

Obviously, this won’t solve more systemic, structural problems, such as poor roads or lack of ambulances. But the quality of care still remains one of the most pressing issues, and many skilled birth attendants have little by way of up-to-date, easily understandable job aids to help them adhere to guidelines and cope with obstetric emergencies. Apps such as this can give birth attendants the knowledge they need to prevent major causes of maternal and neonatal death, thus helping to solve at least one part of the problem.

Now more than ever, it is crucial to support the empowerment of local communities. We must create multilevel partnerships within both the public and private sectors, from large tech companies and national governments to smaller health ministries and local NGOs, to reach more and more women with lifesaving technology. Together, we can implement simple technology solutions on a larger scale, ensuring access to adequate health care for women and families everywhere so that no woman dies giving life.

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The views in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect Devex's editorial views.

About the author

  • Anna Cecilia Frellsen

    Anna Cecilia Frellsen is the CEO of Maternity Foundation, a Danish development organization that aims to reduce maternal and child mortality in developing countries by developing sustainable and innovative maternal health solutions to be scaled up. One of these solutions is the Safe Delivery App, developed in collaboration with Copenhagen University and University of Southern Denmark.