Posted by: davidjolson | 03/25/2011

Connecting the maternal health dots in California

This is a guest blog by Ruth Landy, a strategic communication consultant based in San Francisco following global assignments with UNICEF, WHO and two global health partnerships.

SAN FRANCISCO, California — Maternal health was on the agenda here last week.

It’s more dangerous to give birth in the U.S. than in Kuwait or Bosnia. In California, the number of women dying of pregnancy-related causes nearly tripled between 1996 and 2006, according to unpublished state data. Worldwide, a woman still dies every ninety seconds during pregnancy or childbirth.

Christy Turlington Burns, Suellen Miller and Nan Strauss (Amnesty International) at the San Francisco premiere of "No Woman, No Cry." Photo : Pavlina Eccless

“Statistics are people with the tears wiped off,” said Dr Suellen Miller, director of the University of California San Francisco’s Safe Motherhood Programs, introducing one of two maternal health events taking place in the city last week. The university’s Global Health Sciences program hosted the California premiere of No Woman, No Cry, a compelling new documentary by supermodel and advocate Christy Turlington Burns, at its new Mission Bay campus.

Across town, Amnesty International held a packed session on maternal health during its annual general meeting at the Fairmont Hotel. The well-known grassroots movement has made this a priority issue, campaigning for the right to maternal health in Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, Peru, Nicaragua and … the United States.

Last year Amnesty issued a scathing report calling attention to the maternal health crisis in this country.  The U.S. spends more money on health care than any other nation. Yet in a UN country ranking we are 50th when it comes to a woman’s risk of dying in pregnancy or childbirth. Women of color and uninsured women are particularly vulnerable.

“Being uninsured and being pregnant is quite a disaster right now,” said Jenny Joseph, an inspirational midwife portrayed in Turlington Burns’ film, whose clinic serves low income women in central Florida.  Political leaders are beginning to take notice.  U.S. Representative John Conyers has just introduced the Maternal Health Accountability Act into Congress to address these disparities and push for better research and reporting.

In California, San Francisco writer Nathanael Johnson has doggedly pursued the issue of maternal deaths at the state level, under the umbrella of California Watch, a center for nonpartisan investigative journalism.  Johnson called maternal deaths “not just a personal tragedy but a catastrophe for whole communities” yet he urged his audience to focus on the “the power of small improvements.”

The personal as political coursed through both events. At the UCSF screening, Christy Turlington Burns described how her life-threatening hemorrhage while giving birth in a New York hospital changed her life. Learning her complication is the leading cause of death for women giving birth in the developing world, she went on to produce No Woman, No Cry, giving a voice to women in Tanzania, Bangladesh, Guatemala and the U.S. “I realized I could do something about this,” Turlington Burns said.

Suellen Miller, who had a successful practice as a midwife in “affluent Marin County,” got religion about safe motherhood when she visited Nepal with her 10-year-old daughter. There she experienced the lonely, unsanitary circumstances under which poor women were delivering their babies and decided to shift her focus. Today she is championing the LifeWrap, a simple neoprene and Velcro first aid device which can save women’s lives when they are hemorrhaging even as they face agonizing delays in receiving care. Miller is conducting scientific research to test the LifeWrap’s efficacy on a large scale. Initial results from Nigeria and Egypt are promising.

Both of San Francisco’s maternal health events ably combined local, national and global perspectives into one mix. It’s the kernel of multi-tiered approach to connect organizations working on maternal health around the world, at all levels.

How can we further cultivate linkages between local and global advocates in rich as well as developing nations?  Can global donors help nurture these indispensable networks?

We haven’t connected all the maternal health dots yet.  But we’re on our way.

What are your thoughts on moving this forward? Share them below.

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