By Latrice Davis
Thursday, November 5, 2009
Improving water quality and access can help lower maternal mortality rates, say advocates. Now a new fellowship program is being launched to explore various solutions to the maternal health problem in the world's poorest nations.
(WOMENSENEWS)--Knowledge has long been cited as the tool most needed to lower maternal mortality rates, but Global Water, a volunteer organization based in Oxnard, Calif., says what women in developing countries also need to combat this problem is water.
"Not having the proper amount of water on a daily basis puts stress on the body, which affects a woman's life span," said Ted Kuepper, the organization's executive director, in a telephone interview. "It also affects their ability to further their education and break out of poverty."
To help disrupt this cycle, the New York-based international reproductive health organization EngenderHealth is launching a fellowship program with Ashoka, an organization of social entrepreneurs with headquarters in Arlington, Va., to focus on improving maternal health in the world's poorest nations. The initiative will concentrate on parts of the world with the highest maternal and child mortality rates, says Tim Thomas, senior advisor of the Maternal Health Task Force at EngenderHealth.
"The rates are highest in Africa and South Asia," he said in a telephone interview, but added that "we're not committing to any particular countries at this point."
That's because EngenderHealth and Ashoka--who plan to recruit 32 candidates through its Changemakers online competition--are seeking proposals that focus on applicants' areas of interest. Those selected for the program will spend nine months working on a tangible solution to a specific maternal health challenge, starting in September 2010.
Water use has grown at more than twice the rate of the world's population over the past century, mostly for agricultural purposes, according to the 2009 United Nations Millennium Development Goals Report. This has left 884 million people at risk for--or already facing--a water shortage. The situation poses a huge threat to maternal health, but Thomas said it's not the only contributing factor.
"There's a panoply of factors that contribute to maternal mortality--everything from (the drug) misoprostol not being available to treat postpartum hemorrhage to the insufficient distribution of magnesium sulfate for preeclampsia in rural clinics," he said. "This is where research is needed to coalesce and bring consensus, and that's one of the jobs of the task force."
Grace Lusiola, director of the EngenderHealth office in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, works in conjunction with the government on strategies like the One Plan, a federal campaign unveiled in April 2008 to reduce maternal and child deaths. The campaign's contributions to policy development include providing post-abortion care.
"Unsafe abortion is the leading cause of maternal death in Tanzania," Lusiola said in an e-mail interview. "We're increasing the number of facilities at the community level where women who have had unsafe abortions can go for medical care. Being able to get emergency care locally and not having to travel (long distances) saves lives."
Another way to improve maternal health is through building latrines and hand-washing stations. Global Water assembles such facilities for elementary schools in rural areas, working with the Peace Corps to promote good hygiene and halt the spread of waterborne illnesses such as cholera, diarrhea, hepatitis and typhoid fever. On one visit to a village in Guatemala, Kuepper said, volunteers taught children about hygiene--despite lacking the basic tools.
"Those schools didn't have any water, so they had the students pretend to wash their hands and brush their teeth," he said. "It was an amazing sight."
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