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Saving the women of West Africa

The Baltimore Sun

I grew up in the early 1960s in Burkina Faso, West Africa. Burkina Faso is a small, landlocked country with a population of less than 14 million, most of who are poor.

Life expectancy for men and women is 48 years because of the lack of health care. This is especially the case for women who die during or after giving birth.

As a young man, I remember hearing about women in my village who died during labor. Their deaths were not discussed publicly. All we were told was that it was God's will and that we should accept these tragic events as an inescapable part of life.

But that never stopped me from being curious about the deaths. As one of nine children, I would secretly worry about the health of my mother when she was pregnant.

These concerns led me to pursue a career as a doctor. Today, I am a public health physician and my job is to bring health care awareness and resources to women and families throughout Africa.

Over the years, I have become acutely aware of the causes of the high mortality rate of women who die during or after giving birth.

Few women in my village visit health care centers when they are pregnant. Many suffer from conditions that are preventable - pregnancy complications and poor nutrition - and malaria or anemia, which are treatable.

These women have no knowledge of simple behaviors that could save their lives or the lives of their newborns.

As a doctor, some of my colleagues and I have had to teach women about family planning, prenatal care sessions, using medications to fight malaria, and getting counseled and tested for HIV/AIDS.

We make sure that pregnant women receive dietary supplements such as iron to prevent anemia.

Improving health care services, as I have learned, is not enough. Women in West Africa are poor and cannot afford to visit a health center or pay for services in health facilities.

I recently visited a health clinic in West Africa where a 24-year-old mother of six had just delivered premature twins with the help of a midwife who used a flashlight to illuminate the facility, which had no electricity.

The babies needed to be transferred to a hospital, but the cost to take them by ambulance and check them in the hospital was a financial burden. The ambulance cost $3 and the hospital required a $20 deposit.

She called her husband, who later abandoned them because the expenses were too much for him to accept. After a few hours of consultation with her family, the mother was sent to the hospital. Those hours were crucial to the wellbeing of the mother and her newborns.

In addition to the cost of health care and the lack of health education, there is a shortage of trained health care workers - especially in rural areas. I saw this firsthand. While I was an intern, many women died at remote facilities because of the lack of resources.

Over the past 15 years, I have seen some progress, though. Many midwives have been trained.

There have been other improvements as well.

Many villages have blood banks now. Many women have access to drugs that will help them with pregnancy and labor complications.

Countless women's lives are being saved. As a result, my perspective on health and the vision for a better future for vulnerable populations in Africa has changed.

Dr. Alain Damiba, 52, is vice president of global program operations for JHPIEGO - an international health organization affiliated with the John Hopkins University that builds global and local partnerships to improve health care for women and families around the world. His extended family lives in Burkina Faso. He is married and has two children.

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