By DEBORAH ROBERTS
When I went into labor with my first child 13 years ago, I expected, like many moms- to-be, smooth sailing. It wasn’t. After 18 intense hours, my labor had not progressed much. So my skilled and trusted obstetrician ordered a cesarean section. My disappointment over having major surgery soon gave way to joy over my beautiful daughter. Three years later, I had a second C-section with my son. I healed well and didn’t think much about the medical intervention surrounding my birthing experiences, until last month.
As I prepared for a story on maternal mortality, I realized that what happened to me could have been life-threatening if I lived in another part of the world. The statistics are stunning: Every 90 seconds a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth. That’s 1,000 girls and women a day… more than half a million women every year. And experts say more than 80% of these deaths are preventable.
And I made another shocking discovery. The United States, a country which spends nearly $3 trillion annually on healthcare has an astoundingly high maternal mortality rate. One international group ranks us 50th in the world, behind countries like Albania and South Korea. Two women in this country die each day due to pregnancy-related problems. And for black women the number is four times higher for reasons that are unclear.
My birth state of Georgia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the country. I visited the Atlanta Medical Center where Dr. Bradley Bootstaylor offered a stunning, and controversial theory: that we may be leaving women vulnerable to complications by turning childbirth into a medical event instead of allowing it to happen more naturally. He worries about the routine reliance on ultrasounds, epidurals and C-sections. His hospital is now taking a low tech approach to childbirth. They have eight midwives on staff who discourage painkillers and offer alternatives like massage, walking during contractions and warm tubs of water to allow women to get through the birth experience more naturally. While there are no published studies to suggest that medical intervention leads to maternal deaths, there is no arguing that maternal mortality is a problem in the U.S.
Some countries, however, are making extraordinary progress. Believe it or not, one of them is in the developing world. Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries on the planet - nearly 150-million people in an area the size of Iowa – is somehow creating a miracle. Over the last decade the deaths of new mothers has dropped dramatically – by 40 percent! Today Bangladesh is one of just 16 countries on the path to achieve the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals – including cutting maternal deaths by 75% by the year 2015.
I traveled 8,000 miles to the capital city of Dhaka to see what was happening. There I met Dr. Kaosar Afsana. She’s an academic working with BRAC, an international aid group, which has had a major role in saving the lives of Bangladeshi women. In a country where close to 80 percent of women give birth at home, BRAC has discovered that the lack of skilled medical care during childbirth is at the heart of the problem.
Afsana took me by boat to a local slum called Korail. As we wound our way through narrow alleyways I met young mother after young mother. Afsana explained how women, often teens, really, die at alarming rates in Bangladesh due to hemorrhaging, obstructed labor, infections, poor nutrition and lack of knowledge about childbirth. And worse, most don’t trust the medical system to help them. So BRAC decided that the key to change is in delivering medical attention to the doorstep of expectant women.
We visited a birthing hut where eight pregnant women, wrapped in colorful saris, were being instructed on the basics of what to expect during delivery and how to recognize a possible complication before it’s too late. I asked how many of them planned to come back to the hut to deliver, and all raised their hands. The hut was clean and had a warm feeling. Then, we got word of a birth happening in a hut nearby. We raced through the litter strewn streets to another birth center to find a bright-eyed, beautiful baby boy who was just delivered by 25-year old Rina. Both mother and child, surrounded by four skilled female birth attendants, were doing fine. A nice safe birth. Six hours later, Rina was on her way home. She was escorted by two women who helped with the birth and possibly spared her life threatening complications. We could call them Rina’s guardian angels.
On the last day of my visit, I met with Richard Greene, an official with United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the U.S. government’s humanitarian aid arm. A Virginia resident now living in Dhaka, Greene is one of the architects for a new cell phone program that has enormous promise to improve health outcomes for pregnant women and new moms. Its success makes sense: more than half the population carries a cell phone
The plan is to text or call pregnant women to give them critical alerts about their pregnancies timed to their due date. They get reminders to take vitamins, see a health worker or eat healthy food (poor nutrition is a big problem in Bangladesh). Once the baby is born, they get text messages about breastfeeding and potential problems to look out for. Health workers also carry cell phones, and with a few keystrokes can upload data on specific patients to a server so doctors can monitor a pregnant woman health throughout the pregnancy.
The pilot program, called MAMA, is still in its infancy. It’s an idea that’s catching on. When I returned home I learned of a similar texting program in the U.S.
It’s called Text4Baby, and it’s a free messaging service. All a mother has to do is text 511411 and put in the word BABY or BEBE (for Spanish service), along with her due date or her child’s birthday, and she’ll receive three personalized, health-related text messages a week through her entire pregnancy and the first year of her baby’s life.
There’s an old African proverb: to be pregnant is to have one foot in the grave. The hope among those engaged in the fight against maternal mortality is that those ancient words will soon be forgotten.
Find out more about saving the lives of moms and babies, watch ”20/20″ Friday at 10 p.m. ET