African countries must increase the availability of contraceptives, and also educate girls and women about the importance of family planning, if they are serious about reducing maternal and child deaths.
This was the take-home message at the three-day International Conference on Maternal, Newborn and Child Health in Africa held in Ekurhuleni, which ended today.
The conference hosted by the African Union (AU), in partnership with the South African government, acknowledged that there has been improvement in maternal and child mortality rates in Africa in the past few years, but more still needs to be done as it the continent has the highest maternal mortality ratio in the world.
The latest official statistics show that 165 000 women died because of pregnancy or childbirth-related complications in Africa in 2011, of which 3 200 were in South Africa.
Although maternal deaths decreased by 46% between 1990 and 2011, AU chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said: “It was unacceptable that so many African women died while giving life.”
She called on countries to increase the availability of and improve family planning choices, and the health and nutrition status of mothers.
“The health status of a child and its odds for survival and prospects to grow and develop, does not begin at birth but way before with family planning. What we need to do is to ensure that women have choices, have universal access to family planning services and are educated about when they should have children, the spacing of their children and the choice on the number of children they have,” she said.
Dlamini-Zuma explained that this can be achieved by empowering women, strengthening health systems, entrenching women’s reproductive rights and the rights of children.
Dr Babatunde Osotimehin, executive director at the United Nations Population Fund, agrees: “Gender inequality and women’s low social status continues to affect women’s health and access to and use of family planning services.
“We have the tools and the knowledge to reduce maternal and child mortality. All we need to do is hold ourselves accountable and work together to promote children and women’s rights and we can bring an end to preventable maternal and child deaths,” he said.
The conference was also used as a platform to remind AU member states that there were only 900 days left before the target date for the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which includes reducing maternal and child deaths.
Most African countries, including South Africa, are unlikely to meet MDGs relating to maternal and child mortality.
South Africa committed to decreasing the maternal mortality rate from 150 per 100 000 in 1998 to 38 per 100 000 by 2015.
However, out of every 100 000 women who fell pregnant in 2011, 310 died because of pregnancy or childbirth-related complications. Hypertension, HIV and excessive bleeding were found to be the main causes of death.
Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi said the country was doing all it could to reduce maternal deaths, but “HIV, hypertension and haemorrhage were hindering progress”.
“These three factors are the main cause of death in pregnant women. If we can deal with them, we can reduce the number of women who die due to pregnancy-related complications,” he said.
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