Giving birth is dangerous business for Haiti’s poor, who suffer the highest maternal mortality rate in the Western Hemisphere. Some 630 of every 100-thousand women died of pregnancy-related causes in 2006 – more than five times the Latin American and Caribbean average, according to the United Nations.
The problem appears to be simple: millions of women either cannot access health care, or cannot afford it. Haitian health officials made significant strides last year (2008) with a program to waive entrance fees – the equivalent of 25 to 64 cents a day – for pregnant mothers at public hospitals.
But the women must pay for almost everything else, from doctors’ gloves and syringes to medicine, food and transportation.
The situation turned critical last year (2008) when Port-au-Prince’s public hospitals went on strike during the fall peak birthing season – nine months after Carnival. With mothers forced to turn to a handful of not-for-profits, the cramped, 66-bed Jude Anne maternity hospital run by Doctors Without Borders Holland in central Port-au-Prince became, in the words of obstetrician Dr. Wendy Lai, a “war zone.”
Women were giving birth on the floor, in the waiting room, on staircases and in bathrooms, she said. One died before doctors, caught up with other life-threatening emergencies, could attend to her. Doctors Without Borders recently moved to a larger facility after two and a half years in a building so cramped, doctors could not walk around some patients’ beds.
Conditions are still basic, with overcrowded delivery rooms filled with women in labour. But the facility provides critical care for expectant mothers, many of whom face difficult births. “We are trying to take women who are the most complicated pregnancies and deliver them safely,” said Doctors Lai. Some of the mothers sing to get through the pain.
Jean-Francoise Marie Lucet was one of the women who started to shout in the delivery room.
After just a few minutes of pushing and screaming, Lucet gave birth to a son who weighed a healthy 7.16 pounds. The baby was her second – the first had died a year before after suddenly losing weight. Haitian mothers are disproportionately threatened by the disorders of eclampsia and pre-eclampsia, which bring high blood pressure, excess protein and swelling, and can cause seizures, heart failure, brain hemorrhages and death.