Mothers and Grandmothers
I have always felt a special connection to my grandmother, Emily Priest McKhann. I was named after her, I've often been told I look like her, and I was born in the same hospital where she died a few weeks after giving birth to my Dad.
Emily (we never referred to her as Grandma) died of an infection that could have been treated with penicillin if the cure had been available then. My grandfather was left with two very young boys, and growing up, I often wondered how Grandpa coped with his sudden loss, what it was like for my Dad and uncle growing up without her, and what Emily was like.
She has been on my mind because I'm at the Women Deliver conference in London. Thousands of people are gathered here because they want to save women's and girls' lives around the world.
With reason. Half a million women - one every minute -- die from pregnancy or childbirth every year.
As they say here, "a woman shouldn't die giving life."
And as Jill Sheffield, the inspiring leader of Family Care International and the force behind the conference said -- 40% of all pregnancies have complications and 15% have life-threatening complications. Yup, that's right, we're talking ALL pregnancies.
So, if you're one of the 15% of pregnant women at risk and you happen to live in a place with good prenatal care, emergency obstetrics and passable roads, you'll probably live. If not, you probably won't.
I can't even imagine my fear if a friend or family member told me she was pregnant and we lived in a country where 1 in 6 women die in pregnancy or childbirth, as happens in Afghanistan and other countries. (Compare that number to 1 in 30,000 dying in Sweden, and 1 in 4,800 dying in the U.S.)
Or what my community would be like if so many of my friends and neighbors died after getting pregnant.
The Lancet, among the most prestigious medical journals in the world, published a special issue, timed to the conference, on maternal health. The lead-in editorial starts with
"20 years ago, the Safe Motherhood Initiative was launched by WHO and others to help reduce the severe global burden of pregnancy-related illness and death. Sadly, today, most of that burden remains unchanged. Over 300 million women in the developing world suffer from illness brought about by pregnancy and childbirth, and nearly 536,000 die each year. Additionally, newborn babies, whose mothers die in childbirth are three to ten times more likely to die within 2 years than those whose mothers survive.
"… Much can be learned from the HIV/AIDS world. The strong wave of AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s, and well-organised groups of civil society demanding access to life-saving services has given justified prominence to HIV/AIDS. Activism around maternal and child health has not gained anywhere near the same traction - a sad reflection of the low status accorded to women's issues in political circles."
Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland, talked about being back in Dublin a short while ago and visiting a hospital. A pregnant woman had died in delivery that day and the whole hospital was mourning. As she said, around the world, these deaths should be so rare that that would be the response everywhere.
The consequences of all these mothers dying are enormous. Mothers take care of the family, buy whatever foods, medicines, and clothes everyone needs, make sure the kids get an education and work to make ends meet. (Remember the Nobel Peace Prize for micro-loans? The loans overwhelmingly go to women because they are devoted to making things better for their families.) The economic impact of losing all these mothers is $15 billion a year in lost productivity.
But, here's the thing. This problem is solvable. It's not super complicated, like HIV/AIDs. People know the answers. It just takes money -- about $5 billion, a teeny tiny faction of global GNP -- and it takes will. Political will. For that to show up, we need leadership, and our leaders need to know that we care deeply about saving these lives.
Yesterday, at the start of the conference, Gordon Brown, the British prime minister announced that England is committing over $200 million to maternal health programs. That's a good start, and there are rumors more commitments are coming today. Let's hope.
On Monday, I'll update you on other news and calls to action coming out of the conference, and possible ways we can add our voices, lend a hand and make a difference. In the meantime, other women bloggers you might want to read on this topic are Catherine Morgan, The Lancet Student, and Our Bodies, Ourselves Blog.
Thinking of Emily, I'm reminded of a family vacation my grandfather organized when I was in my 20s. After dinner one night, to the surprise of all of us, he said, "Today was Emily's birthday, and here in the room tonight is every one of her direct descendents." Grandpa was not a sentimental person, and he had never said anything like this. After a pause, he continued, "I'd like to tell you something about her," and he went on to tell us about how they met, their courtship, her mother and father, some of the things he loved about her and stories of their time together.
All those years later, and we still needed to fill a great big hole in our family. There are so many holes to fill, far too many, around the world. And for no reason - it's not like the solution hasn't been invented yet.
Emily Priest McKhann