Reducing maternal death in Eritrea

A nurse at a dispensary in western Kenya leans over a pregnant woman to listen to the foetus heartbeat.
A nurse at a dispensary in western Kenya listens to a foetus' heartbeat. Photo: Allan Gichigi

In the market town of Senafe, in southern Eritrea, Fethawi Berhane has just undergone three days of painful labor and complications during childbirth that resulted in the death of her baby, despite the best efforts of a traditional birth attendant. Fethawi herself is lucky to have survived, given the unhygenenic and poorly equipped medical conditions in which she had to give birth.

Fethawi’s case is not unique in Eritrea, which once had the highest maternal mortality rates in the world (about 1400 deaths per 100,000 births). The main contributor to this troublesome rate was the high incidence of obstructed labor.

Highlights

  • UNDP and partners are working to better train traditional birth attendants in Eritrea, and thereby reduce the maternal mortality rate.
  • Eritrea once had the highest maternal mortality rate in the world, with about 1400 deaths per 100,000 births.
  • 80 percent of deliveries in Eritrea occur without a physician or trained midwife.

The rural nature of Eritrea, with its poor communication and transportation infrastructure, particularly in outlying areas, has caused 80 percent of deliveries to take place without a physician or trained midwife present.

Today, however, Eritrea is one of the four African countries said to be on track to achieve Millennium Development Goal 5 on Maternal Health, which calls for countires to reduce their maternal mortality rate by three quarters by 2015. For Eritrea, this will mean attaining a rate of less than 350 deaths per 100,000 births.

This drastic positive change has come about through the concerted programmes and persistent efforts of the Government of the State of Eritrea, in partnership with UNICEF, WHO, UNFPA and UNDP.

These programmes and efforts have led to intensified maternal health campaigns that have provided information about, and increased awareness of, maternal issues in the country. They have also conducted local-language training sessions in rural areas to improve traditional birth attendants' delivery skills and better prepare them for difficult labor.

Thanks to these efforts, each community in Eritrea now has fully-trained maternal care givers and expectant mothers living far from medical centers do not have to risk their lives travelling long distances while in labor. Instead, trained birth attendants visit them in their homes before and after delivery to provide medical assistance and ensure that both mother and baby are in good health.

Additional funding in the amount of US$88 million will be required in the next four years to ensure universal coverage of maternal and neonatal health intervention in Eritrea. Such assurances will provide hope to women like Fethawi Berhane, for whom childbirth will no longer be a matter of life or death.