Haiti Quake Puts 63,000 Pregnant Women at Risk

The Haiti earthquake has increased the risks for an estimated 63,000 pregnant women in Port-au-Prince, as medical facilities and supplies have been destroyed. The UNFPA is distributing delivery and ‘dignity' kits to help minimize the damage.

Many Haitian women are seeking care from makeshift clinics.UNITED NATIONS, New York (WOMENSENEWS)-Rose Mirlande Veilard could no longer feel her baby's kicks and became scared. The Port-au-Prince, Haiti, resident wondered if her baby had been killed during her struggle to leave her home near Champs de Mars, the presidential plaza, during the earthquake.

Since the earthquake hit Haiti on Jan. 12, the 22-year-old has slept in a car parked outside of a church. When Veilard was finally able to see a doctor at a hospital, she found out her baby was still alive, the U.N. Population Fund, or UNFPA, told Women's eNews.

But other women in Haiti will not be so lucky.

When the earthquake hit, Haiti's Ministry of Women was in a meeting with 20 development partners who work with the UNFPA. Almost everyone in the meeting was killed or injured.

"It's very tragic," said Dr. Jemilah Mahmood, chief of UNFPA's humanitarian response team. "You lose the people who could respond and support these communities."

Of the 3 million people affected by the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti, and the aftershocks that continued as recently as Jan. 20, an estimated 63,000 are pregnant women. In the month ahead, 7,000 women are expected to deliver. Giving birth or seeking prenatal care in a city where even the presidential plaza is destroyed poses countless risks to women in Port-au-Prince and throughout the quake region. The New-York based UNFPA has spearheaded efforts to help minimize the risks these women face.

Logistics a Challenge

"The challenge for Haiti is logistics," Mahmood said. "We do not want pregnant women, or women and girls overall, to fall off the radar screen."

Even before the earthquake, giving birth in Haiti was no easy feat. The country has the highest maternal mortality rate in the Northern Hemisphere. For every 100,000 births, 670 mothers do not survive. Fifteen percent of all births before the earthquake had complications that required hospital care, such as hemorrhaging and high blood pressure in the mother, according to the UNFPA.

The UNFPA, a U.N. agency that uses population data to improve reproductive health and make motherhood safer, had 42 staff members in Haiti before the earthquake. They also worked with Haitian midwives to help women deliver safely. Some of their staff were injured and traumatized in the earthquake, though it's unknown how many members, so the organization is currently assessing how many more people to send to Haiti.

To help combat the earthquake's impact on expectant mothers, the agency is currently distributing delivery kits to any visibly pregnant women. It includes a clean cloth, a sterile blade, a plastic sheet and other tools in case a mother can't reach a clinic or hospital in time.

They are also giving ‘dignity kits' to all women and girls, which include sanitary napkins, moist towelettes and fresh pairs of underwear.

Maintaining Dignity Essential

With many medical facilities destroyed, it's harder for Haitian women to deliver their babies safely."We forget that women need to maintain their dignity in a post-crisis situation," said Mahmood. "Girls and women continue to menstruate and don't need to have soiled clothes."

Haiti's health care system took a huge hit in the earthquake, as many hospitals and clinics in the capital were damaged or destroyed. It's not currently known how many people in Haiti's Ministry of Health survived. Hospitals and clinics that are still functioning are overwhelmed with those seeking treatment from serious injuries. Meanwhile, medical supplies are still scarce, despite huge international relief efforts.

The U.N. hopes to bring in more medical supplies soon by air, as well as by road, through the Dominican Republic.

During this crisis, some pregnant women have been forced to give birth without medical supervision and in an unclean environment. Many women who survived the earthquake are now living in makeshift tents, made from bed sheets and sticks, according to the UNFPA. Some doctors have reported doing Caesarean sections and deliveries on park benches while they waited for their hospital's maternity ward to reopen on Jan. 18.

Rebecca Harshbarger is a journalist based in New York. She runs an independent news site for East African immigrants in the diaspora at www.ugandansabroad.org and blogs at www.ugandabeat.wordpress.com. You can follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/rebeccaugust.