Maternal Health Heroes: Interview With H.E. Toyin Saraki

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I am excited to launch the Maternal Health Hereos Summer Series with an interview with H.E. Mrs. Toyin Saraki, founder of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa. Throughout the summer I will speak with some of the most notable maternal health advocates in the world ahead of the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference that will be held in Mexico City between October 18 - 21, 2015. Follow the conversation at #MHHSS.

When did you know global maternal health was a bigger issue than you previously realized?

I became aware of the serious issues surrounding maternal health and survival over 20 years ago, when I gave birth to twins in Nigeria. I tragically lost one of my twin babies during childbirth, and then had to fight for the survival of the other. Even though I was an educated and informed woman, I was unable to save the life of my stillborn second twin daughter because of the infrastructural deficiencies in Nigeria's healthcare system at the time, including a fatal delay in finding an anesthetist for an emergency C-section. Although I was grateful to leave this painful experience with my first twin and my own life, I realized that this experience is an unavoidable reality for many women in Nigeria, and indeed across the world.

Globally, approximately 800 women die from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth every day, and 99% of these deaths occur in developing countries. And, where a mother suffers, her child suffers; and more than 3 million babies die before they are a month old. I founded the Wellbeing Foundation Africa to help address this heartbreaking issue that affects so many women and children. At first, my view was much more localized and I did not know all of these global statistics and the injustice that was taking place on a daily basis; but now it is these statistics, and the real life stories behind the statistics, that spur me on to continue every day.

How do you believe we can achieve substantial improvements in maternal health?

Midwives are absolutely crucial to achieving substantial improvements in maternal health. Midwives empower mothers to make life-saving choices for their children before, during, and after childbirth. A skilled midwife can provide expert care that ensures the survival of newborns during the first fragile 24 hours of life, and enables them to not only survive, but also thrive well into childhood. Midwives empower women at a time when their health is at its most vulnerable. Midwives empower women in a way that can help shape the future health of both mother and baby. After all, we know that an empowered woman is a health-seeking woman for herself, her family and her community.

Midwives should therefore be placed at the very center of Sustainable Development Goals (SGDs) targets related to reproductive, maternal, newborn, and child health. Without this focus, the international community may fail to meet their targets and achieve sustainable improvements in maternal health across Africa and the rest of the world. This is why I am so honored to represent midwives on a global scale as the Global Goodwill Ambassador for the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM). Further to this, I am proud that the Wellbeing Foundation Africa has been awarded consultative status at the United Nation's Economic and Social Affairs Council (ECO-SOC), where we will work to make sure that achieving substantial improvements in maternal health is a priority for the international development community, especially in this pivotal year.

When you talk to frontline health workers, what are their main obstacles when providing quality maternal health care?

A key issue that is often a challenge for frontline health workers is tackling the stigmas facing women during pregnancy and childbirth. Often, women will not seek out help during their pregnancy because they are either embarrassed or afraid, or simply unaware of the help that they need. To this end, WBFA believes that effective health communications can break down these stigmas and enable women to seek the help that they need. Overcoming this requires communications training for healthcare professionals, like midwives, that can not only ensure that women are listened to, but are fully aware of what they need, and what they are entitled to. This is the very foundation of Respectful Maternity Care - making sure that mothers are heard, informed, and empowered.

Another serious concern raised by health care workers in Nigeria is a lack of patient records. Data collection in a country as diverse and large as Nigeria is fraught with difficulty and we lack coherent data on maternal, newborn and child mortality rates. Despite existing legal provisions for birth and death registration, registration numbers are exceptionally low in Nigeria, with only a third of all newborns registered at birth. Death registration figures are even lower, with just under 12% of households surveyed registering deaths in the last 10 years. Without accurate records, we will struggle to accelerate national progress on reducing mortality rates or have a meaningful understanding of how to efficiently implement the Sustainable Development Goals.

Crucially, for medical staff, a lack of accurate patient records means that they cannot effectively identify health risks in pregnancy or track patient progress. For patients, a lack of accurate records means that they cannot track their own progress during pregnancy, leaving them without vital life-saving information, such as their blood type or medical history.

Learning from this situation, WBFA introduced the client-held Personal Health Record (PHR). The PHR has been designed to be in the custody of mothers so that they can bring them to health centers during their pregnancy and labor, and up until their child attains the age of 5 years. Keeping all of this information in this client-held PHR is an effective way of ensuring that mothers and children receive the right care throughout the periods of pregnancy, labor/delivery, and post-natal care.

The PHR is groundbreaking in Nigeria because it is far more than a data collection tool - it is an information delivery platform. It empowers women to track their health and the health of their children, including their nutrition, immunization, and more.

Read the entire interview on SocialGoodMoms.com.