Insecurity and poverty put pregnant women in danger

For years Salah Hussein, 26, had dreamed of having a child, but he never imagined that his wish would be marred by the death of his wife in childbirth.

Hussein’s wife, Fadiya, died of complications during a delivery which, doctors said, were caused by malnutrition and the stress of living in a war-torn country.

“We are a poor family and I couldn’t afford to buy her good food. This was not my fault but the fault of this destroyed country in which the conditions of the health sector are worsening day by day,” said Hussein who works as a barber in the capital, Baghdad.

Dozens of pregnant women with life-threatening conditions are being admitted to Iraq’s hospitals every month.

Dr. Mayada Youssif, a gynaecologist at Baghdad’s Kadhimiyah hospital, believes that pregnant women are falling ill due to the insecurity and poverty that Iraqis have to live with as a result of the conflict.

“Insecurity has forced women to stay at home during their whole period of pregnancy, and they look for a doctor only when they are feeling really ill or feel, near to delivery time, that conditions have become too dangerous,” Youssif said.

The UN children’s agency UNICEF has said that Iraq's maternal mortality rates have increased dramatically over the last 15 years. In 1989, 117 Iraqi mothers out of 100,000 died during pregnancy or childbirth. That ratio has now increased by 65 per cent.

According to Claire Hajaj, Communications Officer at UNICEF Iraq Support Centre in Amman (ISCA), the mortality rate in Iraq far outstrips that of its neighbours.

“Many women give birth in environments where no-one is equipped to recognise an impending emergency. In some cases travelling to hospitals is the last resort because of insecurity, curfews, road blockages and fear of acts of violence,” she said.

“In some areas, skilled specialists and medical supplies to provide emergency obstetric care are not available,” she added.

Now Hussein’s son, Mohammed, is being taken care of by his grandmother who is looking for a surrogate mother to breast-feed him.

“We don’t have money to buy powdered milk so we have to depend on the good heart of some mothers who have survived this terrible situation,” Hussein said.

According to Iraq’s Health Ministry, the country’s hospitals lack essential equipment for antenatal care and medicines for pregnant women, such as iron and folic acid.

“The under investment in the health sector has seriously affected the health of women and children,” Ahmed Yehya, a press officer at the Ministry of Health told IRIN.

He added that women have unique needs when it came to health, nutrition and support from the community, particularly during pregnancy and child delivery.

According to UNICEF, three needs are paramount for the mother and her baby: good nutrition, access to antenatal care (including education about safe birth practices) and access to emergency obstetric care in case of problems.

“It is important to recognise that while unexpected emergencies can arise at any time during pregnancy and delivery, women are far less likely to experience complications if they are properly nourished,” Hajaj said.

To ensure a mother’s access to good nutrition, UNICEF has supported a national programme to fortify wheat flour with iron and folic acid. This initiative helps prevent anaemia, the main cause of maternal death.

Nahid Towfik, a 29-year-old who is eight months pregnant, is at risk of losing her life and that of her baby due to malnutrition.

“The doctor has just told me that I have to do a caesarean operation now because my life is in danger. If I don’t do it now I might die and lose my baby too,” an anaemic Towfik said from her bed at one of Baghdad’s hospitals.

as/sm/ar/jm