For Canadian women, pregnancy and childbirth are relatively safe: pregnancies and deliveries are supervised, and emergency medical care is usually minutes away. In other parts of the world, where access to medical care is scarce and babies are often delivered in unhygienic conditions, one of the most dangerous things a woman can do is give birth.
Every day, about 800 women around the world die during pregnancy or childbirth. Ninety-nine per cent of these deaths occur in the developing world and most die from preventable causes, according to the World Health Organization.
For the past two years, Health Partners International of Canada (HPIC), a Montreal- based relief and development organization, has been providing health workers in the developing world with kits to save mothers and newborns.
These Mother-Child Health Kits contain a combination of over-the-counter medications, including anti-inflammatories, folic acid and prenatal vitamins. There are also supplies like soap, gauze and clamps, and instruments like fetal stethoscopes, infant scales, flashlights and measuring tapes.
Project director Catherine Sharouty said the organization wanted to do something specific to reduce maternal mortality rates that remain shockingly high in some places: 630 deaths per 100,000 live births in Niger and 340 in Kenya, according to the World Bank.
“Mothers and children are always a vulnerable group,” she says. “And to lose a mother is to destroy a family. It puts all her other children at risk of ending up in orphanages or on the street.”
Each kit contains enough supplies to treat 50 pregnant women, 30 infants, and five children. So far, 150 have been distributed in countries including Kenya, Haiti, Gambia and Niger.
The journey to get these supplies abroad begins in Montreal, where HPIC members liaise with the health-care companies that donate most of the items, and organize fundraisers to purchase the rest.
The organization also solicits volunteers from across the country to knit or crochet simple “Izzy” dolls to give to the village children. Named after Mark “Izzy” Isfeld, a Canadian soldier who began the doll-giving tradition while serving in Croatia, these items are used to pad the medical supplies as well as provide a personal touch from Canada. Simple patterns to make these and other items such as baby slings and toques are available on the organization’s website.
The items are stockpiled in a warehouse in Mississauga, Ont., until they are shipped or airlifted to the recipient countries. Partner organizations abroad handle the job of getting the kits to the health workers. For example, in Northern Haiti, 30 kits distributed by the Evangelical Missionary Church of Canada were used to treat 450 mothers and 900 children. In Senegal, where one in 19 babies die in childbirth, the Fondation Sénégal Santé Mobile will use kits to equip three birthing centres.
“Each project is a little bit different, depending on our partners and the needs of the community,” Sharouty says. In places where malnutrition and anemia are leading causes of maternal and infant mortality, something as simple as folic acid or ferrous sulfate given early in pregnancy can save a life.
“In Montreal, a mother can just call Info-Santé with questions, and all babies are delivered by a doctor or a midwife,” Sharouty says. “In many other places, women have to deliver by themselves, or with a neighbour, and can’t even get any pain relief. We can’t take for granted how very blessed we are in Canada. At the same time, we have a responsibility to help.”
The organization is also hoping to expand the scope of the project to ensure that it provides education and training for health workers. Sharouty says that one of the advantages of working with midwives and community workers is that, unlike doctors, many of them will stay put and help their communities for years to come. “We want to make a long-term impact on these communities.”
How You Can Help
Knit, Crochet, Sew: Many medical relief packages are topped up with Izzy Dolls for children in the community. Patterns can be found at: hpicanada.ca/izzy-dolls
Knitting patterns for baby hats or baby scale slings can be found at: hpicanada.ca/donate/baby-hats-slings
Donate: With each dollar donated, HPIC can buy $10 worth of medicine and supplies. It costs approximately $24 to provide a safe delivery for a mother and child. hpicanada.ca/donate.
Volunteer and learn more: For more information, visit hpicanada.ca.