Halfway through my trip to Haiti this week, my wife sent me an email saying that if our baby was born today, he would have a 90 percent chance of survival. I found that incredible, given that Melissa just entered the third trimester of her pregnancy last week. Obviously, we hope that we won’t have to worry about an early delivery, but it is comforting to know that if our baby had to be born now, he’d likely be just fine.
The day she sent me that message I was visiting a hospital Direct Relief is supporting in Marchand Dessalines, a town named after one of Haiti’s first leaders after its independence from France, about two-and-a half-hours north of Port-au-Prince in the Artibonite mountains. I learned from Dr. Fequirere, the young Haitian obstetrician/gynecologist who works at the hospital, that if a child is born in Haiti at the start of the third trimester it would have practically no chance of survival.
Haiti has the highest maternal and infant mortality rate in Latin America and the Caribbean. Pregnancy and its complications have become the leading cause of death and disabilities among women of childbearing age. Out of every 100,000 births, 630 women die giving birth. Roughly 77 percent of Haitian mothers give birth at home, and nearly 100 babies out of 1,000 die during their first year of life. The thought of my wife giving birth in what is now a typical home in Haiti–a battered tent or tarp without running water or sanitation–makes me queasy.
Since the earthquake, Direct Relief has focused on addressing immediate medical needs. We’ve supplied wound dressings, sutures, and wheelchairs after the earthquake; IV solutions, oral rehydration, and antibiotics after the cholera outbreak; and bleach, soap, shampoo, and toothpaste to address the poor hygienic conditions in the camps.
Now, 15 months after the earthquake and seven months since the outbreak of cholera, Direct Relief is taking a step back to focus on the ongoing medical issues facing the country. The one that takes my breath away is the number of women and babies who die unnecessarily every year in childbirth.
The eight hospitals Direct Relief is supporting throughout the country (all with trained doctors, nurses, and midwives), will ideally become centers of excellence in Haiti with new equipment and supplies to save more lives and encourage more women to come in for prenatal care. Over 50 percent of women in Haiti don’t eversee a doctor before they give birth—partially because of the state of the medical facilities.
Our plan takes a four-pronged approach:
- Provide pre- and post-natal “incentive kits” to give to mothers who come in for pre-natal care and delivery. We’ll also pay for their transport to the facility and pay the traditional birth attendant to bring them in.
- Upgrade the equipment and supplies at eight facilities to help them better care for women having complicated deliveries.
- Provide rapid HIV tests to pregnant women who come in for prenatal care. They’ll receive antiretroviral treatment if they test positive.
- Train traditional birth attendants to better recognize complications and encourage women to visit the clinic.
Dr. Fequirere at the hospital in Marchand Dessalines told me that they deliver about 80 babies each month, 10 of whom will die. While the hospital is staffed with five well-trained doctors, 18 nurses, and an anesthesiologist, it lacks the material resources to save these babies. There is no blood bank in the hospital. Often they don’t have the medications needed to treat the women, and they don’t have any incubators, let alone a neonatal intensive care unit to deal with premature deliveries. The doctor said the hospital must refer pre-term labor cases to a hospital over an hour away. The road between the hospitals is impossibly bumpy and winding, and the woman is transported in the back of a truck. Imagine any woman in your life–your wife, mother, daughter, or sister–having to endure that journey.
Bringing life into the world should not be a death sentence. We have the technology and knowledge to treat babies who are born three months (or more) early.
Sometimes it takes a personal experience, or the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes, to relate to these issues that affect so many people on our planet. Now that I my wife and I have a baby on the way and know what care pregnant women receive in the United States, I’m shocked by what most women in Haiti go through in bringing a new life into the world. Direct Relief is going to help change that for nearly one million women in Haiti. I’m glad I can be a part of it.