A recent study revealed that a surprisingly large number of deaths among pregnant women in developing nations are from infectious diseases such as malaria, as opposed to from pregnancy-related illnesses. The findings suggest that many of these deaths are preventable.
According to Reuters:
The study in the journal PLoS Medicine showed that many more women in a large Mozambique hospital died from four infectious diseases - AIDS, malaria, bronchial pneumonia and meningitis - than from conditions directly linked to pregnancy.
"The unexpected result was the role of the infectious disease," said Clara Menendez, an epidemiologist at the University of Barcelona, who led the study. "Over half the deaths were due to non-obstetric causes."
The diseases appear to play a similar role across sub-Saharan Africa, a region that accounts for a lion’s share of the estimated 500,000 maternal deaths worldwide each year, the researchers said.
Malaria is an infection of the blood that is carried from person to person by mosquitoes.
Malaria is caused by a parasite called Plasmodium, which is transmitted via the bites of infected mosquitoes. In the human body, the parasites multiply in the liver, and then infect red blood cells.
Symptoms of malaria include fever, headache, and vomiting, and usually appear between 10 and 15 days after the mosquito bite. If not treated, malaria can quickly become life-threatening by disrupting the blood supply to vital organs. In many parts of the world, the parasites have developed resistance to a number of malaria medicines.
More than one million people die of malaria every year, mostly infants, young children and pregnant women and most of them in Africa. Pregnant women tend to suffer more complications and deaths from malaria than do other adults.
Pregnant women, particularly in the second and third trimesters of pregnancy are more likely to develop severe malaria than other adults, often complicated by pulmonary edema and hypoglycemia. Maternal mortality is approximately 50%, which is higher than in non-pregnant adults. Fetal death and premature labor are common.
The disease is often even harder on pregnant women who are also HIV positive.
... opportunistic diseases like malaria have become life threatening, especially for women who are HIV positive.
Malaria infection during pregnancy can have adverse effects on both the fetus and the mother. These include sever anemia, miscarriage or fetal loss, retarded growth of the fetus, premature birth and delivery of a low birth-weight baby.
The more dangerous Plasmodium falciparum malaria parasite is found in sub-Saharan Africa where it has been estimated that malaria causes 400,000 cases of severe maternal anemia resulting in approximately 10,000 deaths annually.
While these statistics are rather grim, what may be even more startling is the fact that many of these deaths need not have happened had there been proper prevention and treatment of malaria in place. According to the World Health Organization, malaria is both preventable and curable. A simple insecticide-treated mosquito net as well as insecticide spraying can a big difference in preventing further devastating cases of malaria.
On a positive note, last week President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush ended a five-country tour of Africa where part of their efforts went towards fighting malaria through the distribution of mosquito bed nets, part of the President's Malaria Initiative (PMI) launched in June 2005.
President Bush pledged to increase U.S. malaria funding by more than $1.2 billion over five years to reduce deaths due to malaria by 50 percent in 15 African countries and challenged other donor countries, private foundations, and corporations to help reduce the suffering and death caused by this disease.
PMI uses a comprehensive approach to prevent and treat malaria, supporting four key areas – indoor spraying of homes with insecticides, insecticide-treated mosquito nets, lifesaving antimalarial drugs, and treatment to prevent malaria in pregnant women.
Also noteworthy is the launch of the United Nations Maternal Health Fund.
The thematic fund, which United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has established in partnership with governments, United Nations organizations and other international partners, will help countries increase their access and use of quality maternal health services that would reduce maternal deaths and disabilities. It will also increase the capacity of health systems to provide a broad range of quality maternal health services, strengthen mechanisms to reduce health inequities, and empower women to exercise their right to maternal health.
The thematic fund will focus on supporting 75 countries with the greatest need. The goal is to raise $465 million during 2008-2011.
In an area such as Africa where so much is needed to improve maternal health, it is my hope that efforts such as these will be the beginning of healthier times ahead for both mothers and their children.
More about maternal health:
Maternal deaths - Preventable
United Nations Population Fund
Investigating the health of Africa's mothers
Women for Women
Women and Hollywood: Interview with Mary Olive Smith, director, A Walk to Beautiful
Citizens for Midwifery: USA Today & MSNBC Feature Ina May Gaskin
Contributing editor Amy Gates also writes about attachment parenting, activism, green living and photography at Crunchy Domestic Goddess.
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