Even before the devastating magnitude-7.8 earthquake rocked Nepal’s capital on Saturday, the maternal health system there was severely compromised. Now, amid the carnage and destroyed hospitals, tens of thousands of pregnant women are facing even more troubling conditions.
As of Monday afternoon, the death toll topped 4,000 people, according to the Associated Press, as aid organizations scrambled to deliver food, water and emergency medical aid to survivors in need. But, as is often the case when disaster strikes, pregnant women remain one of the most vulnerable populations because of the vigilant care they require and the high risks they face.
“In times of upheaval or natural disasters, pregnancy-related deaths and gender-based violence soar,” Priya Marwah, a UNFPA humanitarian response coordinator, said in a statement. “Many women lose access to essential reproductive health services and give birth in appalling conditions without access to safe delivery services and lifesaving care.”
Such “appalling conditions” include babies being born outside with no medical resources whatsoever.
Matt Darvas, a communications officer with World Vision, said he witnessed women delivering in fields lying on only yoga mats, according to a statement released by organization.
Many of the clinics are simply too overstretched to cater to these women’s needs and some pregnant patients are reluctant to return to the hospital because of fears of aftershocks.
"I saw one baby born in front of me, an incredible testimony to the power of life amidst so much death and chaos," Darvas, who was stationed at the Western Regional Hospital, Pokhara hospital, said in a statement.
Pregnant women and new moms require a whole host of services, including antenatal care, safe delivery services and postpartum care.
But considering that clinics have been devastated, prices for essentials are soaring and the maternal health situation was already grim before the disaster, thousands of pregnant women and new moms simply can’t get access to the health care they need, according to UNFPA.
While maternal deaths have significantly declined in Nepal, advocates are concerned about the country’s dearth of qualified health staff, midwives in particular, Irin News reported in 2013.
Three-fourths of the pregnant women are anemic, according to UNICEF and many misuse a prescription drug that stimulates contractions.
While oxytocin is safe for pregnant women to use in small doses, many women in Nepal take it to excess to induce premature births, often to time the delivery with a religious holiday, according to Doctors Without Borders. The drug can lead to fetal and neonatal deaths, and ruptures of the uterus.
While most aid groups are working on bringing the basic essentials to survivors, a number of groups are focusing their efforts on the needs of pregnant women.
The UNFPA is dispensing emergency staff members who are delivering dignity kits and reproductive health kits to Nepal. The dignity kits include such items as sanitary napkins, soap, toothbrushes and towels.
The reproductive health kits provide tools needed for vaginal tears, blood transfusions and other medical issues that arise during delivery.
“The fund is particularly concerned about the fate of pregnant women who have been affected by this tragedy, including those who might face potentially life-threatening complications,” Dr. Babatunde Osotimehin, UNFPA executive director, said in a statement on the disaster. “All efforts will be exerted to support their safety and the safety of their babies.”
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