Ebola heightens childbirth danger in Sierra Leone

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Having children has always been a frightening prospect in Sierra Leone, the world’s most dangerous place to give birth, but Ebola has presented an alarming new threat for expectant mothers. Duration: 2:09

Ebola heightens childbirth danger in Sierra Leone

Ebola heightens childbirth danger in Sierra Leone

/ Freetown (Sierra Leone) – 17 November 2014 15:20 – AFP (Anne CHAON) / FOCUS

Having children has always been a frightening prospect in Sierra Leone, the world’s most dangerous place to give birth, but Ebola has presented an alarming new threat for expectant mothers.

Around 11 women die for every 1,000 babies born in the impoverished west African nation but experts fear the grim statistic, highest among 183 countries ranked by the World Bank, is worsening.

Since the epidemic spread to Sierra Leone in May women have increasingly given birth in often dangerous conditions at home, frightened of getting sick in hospital.

In the Magazine neighbourhood of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, overlooking the poor shanties of Susan’s Bay, the staff of the Mabella clinic gesture with concern towards the empty beds.

“The patients are afraid of us. They don’t come except when they become very, very ill,” says manager Justina Bangura, opening up a large, yellow register of maternity patients.

“Forty-seven deliveries in July, 30 in August, 25 in September and 27 in October,” she reads.

During the same period, her team has seen the number of home deliveries rise slightly from seven in July to 14 in August and 10 in October, although many will have gone under the radar.

“We try to explain that they will get infections and they will die at home and the baby will die. But they call us the ‘Ebola nurses’. We are not the Ebola nurses,” says nurse Eugenia Bodkin.

“In July and August, they even said we were injecting them with the virus. People abuse us and throw stones at us.”

Bodkin says she takes care to travel to work in civilian clothing, fearing the opprobrium a nurse’s uniform can attract among a panicked population.

In the industrial estate of Wellington, at the city’s northwestern edge, the nurses of the Kuntorloh clinic have found a solution to the suspicions of their patients — a new dress code.

“Everybody is afraid of Ebola,” says Ramatu Kamara, who sports a lilac frock and turban — accessorised incongruously with plastic surgical gloves — as she prepares to vaccinate a two-month-old.

“This is the reason why most of us don’t use uniforms, in fact, because it’s when you put on a uniform that they will not come to the centre. They say the nurses are all infected with Ebola.”

– Lower chance of survival –

The clinic has not seen a single death in childbirth since it opened in 2010, says its director, Musab Sillah.

He believes awareness of Ebola has improved a little since the government confined the population at home for three days in September in a bid to slow the contagion.

The lockdown provided an opportunity for UNICEF and British charity Save the Children — both of which support the clinic — to provide information door-to-door on how to prevent Ebola spreading.

Home births are on the rise in Liberia, too, where health facilities, overwhelmed by a flood of higher-priority Ebola patients, have closed their doors to pregnant women.

But while Liberia has reported a slowdown in new infections in the capital, Monrovia, the epidemic is continuing to spread at an alarming rate in Freetown.

Sierra Leone reacted to its grisly maternal mortality record with legislation, outlawing home births and handing out 50,000-leone ($11, nine-euro) fines those who flout the law.

Ebola — which spreads via bodily fluids and has an estimated death rate of around 70 percent in the current outbreak — poses a heightened threat to pregnant women and their babies because pregnancy weakens the immune system.

“We advise them to look after themselves, to eat well, because once infected, they have a much lower chance of survival than others,” says Sillah.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, 800,000 women will give birth in the next 12 months in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea, the countries which have recorded all but a handful of more than 5,000 Ebola deaths this year.

Of these, 120,000 will be exposed to potentially fatal complications, lack of adequate health care, and hundreds will die in childbirth.

Tags : Leone, Sierra, Danger, Childbirth, Heightens, Ebola

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