Posted by: davidjolson | 05/18/2011

Promoting the critical role of midwives at World Health Assembly

This is a guest blog by Maeve Shearlaw of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood in London and a member of the Global Health Council delegation to the World Health Assembly.

GENEVA — This is my first World Health Assembly and it’s great to be here. There are over 190 country delegations, numerous representatives from international bodies, an NGO delegation – with the Global Health Council — and others. As a result, everything is pretty spread out. Needless to say, I am really pleased I listened to advice to “wear flat shoes!”

It is encouraging to see that there are so many issues related to maternal, newborn and child health (MNCH) on this year’s agenda and in many ways it’s a “check-in moment” for a lot of the international processes and events happening this year – the Accountability Commission set up around the Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health have just completed their recommendation; the G8 is just around the corner, a year on from the $7.3 billion commitment  to MNCH made in Canada through the Muskoka initiative last year.

My first day started early with a breakfast briefing on the – first ever– State of the World’s Midwifery Report. The report, commissioned by the United Nations Populations Fund (UNFPA), aims to highlight data from the 58 countries in the world that have the highest burden of maternal, fetal and newborn mortality by looking at key factors, including the number and distribution of professional midwives across countries and regions, how midwives are regulated, what national policies exist, what the gaps are and how external aid is spent, but also — crucially — providing findings and guidance on increasing the number of health personnel with professional midwifery skills to improve the quality of care for mothers and their newborns.

The role of skilled birth attendants, in particular midwives, has been widely acknowledged as key to accelerating the reduction of maternal and newborn deaths and disabilities. The Global Strategy for Women’s and Children’s Health launched last September identified a need for an additional 2.5 to 3.5 million health workers and resulted in many countries making specific pledges to increase their number of trained midwives.

A statistic from the Atlas of Birth shows that in Nigeria, just one midwife has the potential to save the lives of 1,000 mums (so imagine the difference 350,000 worldwide could make), but as many of us know, it is not just about training midwives but also about ensuring that they are encouraged to stay and work in high burden countries and deployed across regions, rather than clustering in urban areas. Moreover, midwives should work in equipped health facilities and be treated and respected as professionals.

The importance of health workers to the progress of global health, development and ensuring that the Millennium Development Goals are met is an issue that is getting of traction. This is encouraging, but we must all work together keep up the pressure on donor and aid recipient governments to fill the health worker gap. As Bill Gates said in his address here yesterday, “when everyone has access to good health care, the world will be transformed.”

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