[The author, Dr. John M. Thorp, Jr., is UNC professor of OB-GYN and director of of the women’s primary healthcare division]
I recently returned from a trip to Malawi, where I observed the tremendous progress and growth of our maternal and neonatal health program in that country. I never fail to be moved and inspired by what my colleagues are doing there, and this trip was no exception.
Malawi has the unfortunate distinction of being one of the poorest nations on earth. It also has one of the highest maternal mortality rates: about one in 36 women die during childbirth. Malawi’s first woman president, Joyce Banda, is determined to change that. She launched the President’s Maternal Health and Safe Motherhood Initiative (SMI). Earlier this year, UNC was awarded $8 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to assist with implementation of the SMI.
There is already much progress to report. The accomplishments of Jeff Wilkinson, Sumera Hyat, Jen Tang, and the rest of their team is nothing short of amazing.
A lack of skilled health workers contributes significantly to Malawi’s high rates of maternal mortality, and a core part of the UNC’s collaboration with Gates on the SMI is to support training of maternal and newborn health care providers across the spectrum, from nurse midwives to physician specialists. This fall, we enrolled more than 150 students in community midwife training programs. This is already about one quarter of the proposed total number of midwife trainees.
We have broken ground on two new maternity waiting homes. Malawi is overwhelmingly rural, and most pregnant women live too far from proper obstetric care. The maternity waiting homes are designed for women who live in remote areas. They will come to the homes toward the end of their pregnancies and have access to well-equipped facilities and skilled health workers. UNC has been assisting with the construction of the first maternity waiting homes that will serve as models for similar homes across Malawi. Our partners at Gates have expressed interest in improving the maternity homes further, for example, by powering them with renewable energy.
Already more than 100 village chiefs have participated in community mobilization efforts to make motherhood safer. Gaining the support of traditional chiefs is critical to the success of the SMI. In addition, family planning has been incorporated into every phase of the work. Giving women the ability to control their own fertility is one of the most powerful tools that can help lift families out of poverty.
Dr. David Mayer, division chief of obstetric anesthesia at UNC, planned and hosted the first-ever OB-GYN anesthesia educational event in Malawi, and perhaps in all of sub-Saharan Africa. More than 50 anesthetists from across the country attended.
And finally, at the end of the month, the first doctor will train at Bwaila Hospital in UNC’s OB-GYN residency program, also the first of its kind in the country.
In summary, I am elated by the progress that has been made and am so proud of the leadership of the Wilkinson-Hayat team. My goal is to do all I can to make sure they have all the support they need, and it is a great joy to play a small role in all of this.
- John Thorp