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In Africa, Overcoming the Risks of Childbirth

An HIV-positive mother and her child at a hospital in Manica, Mozambique.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR
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An HIV-positive mother and her child at a hospital in Manica, Mozambique.
Mozambique and Zambia are among the countries in Africa that have been hard hit by high infant and maternal mortality rates.
Doug Beach for NPR /
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Mozambique and Zambia are among the countries in Africa that have been hard hit by high infant and maternal mortality rates.
A mother gives medicine to her baby at the hospital in Manica.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR /
/
A mother gives medicine to her baby at the hospital in Manica.
Traditional healers get professional instruction in care and treatment of pregnant women.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault, NPR /
/
Traditional healers get professional instruction in care and treatment of pregnant women.

Ensuring the survival of future generations is one of the most urgent problems facing Africa. That means saving the lives of both mothers and their babies.

One out of every six children in the continent dies before the age of five. For women, the chance of dying in childbirth is three times higher in Africa than in industrialized nations.

Training caregivers and educating expectant mothers are among the solutions being tried to reverse those trends.

Countless numbers of women in Zambia and around the continent have died from botched abortions. And many more die from the delay to seek medical care and the lack of appropriate treatment.

Dr. Mulindi Mwanahamuntu, who headed a study on maternal mortality in Zambia, says that rural women who do manage to get to medical facilities often "are in such bad shape that we can't save them." Medical care is crippled by a lack of resources, he says.

Midwives are the frontline fighters to try to reduce maternal mortality. But they are leaving the country because the government can't pay them enough, Mwanahamuntu says.

Zambia has a young population, with women each bearing an average of almost six children.

It also has one of Africa's highest rates of maternal mortality.

At a conference on the outskirts of Zambia's capital Lusaka organized by the government and its international partners -- UNICEF, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS -- officials drafted a "roadmap" defining the maternal mortality problem and trying to come up with solutions.

Conferees, including UNICEF's country director for Zambia Lotta Sylwander agreed that, even with limited resources, governments can reduce maternal and infant mortality rates by training people to become skilled birth attendants.

In neighboring Mozambique, traditional healers have been trained in some of the basics of midwifery. It is one of a few countries with a steady decline in infant mortality. But success has been made more difficult by the devastation of 15 years of civil war.

Mozambique has launched a campaign to get more expectant mothers to come to hospitals for classes. It has also allowed high-risk pregnant women from rural areas to stay at district hospitals until their babies are born.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Charlayne Hunter-Gault recently left her post as CNN's Johannesburg bureau chief and correspondent, which she had held since 1999, to pursue independent projects. Before joining CNN, she worked from Johannesburg as the chief correspondent in Africa for NPR from 1997 to 1999.

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