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Kenya’s month-old decision to make healthcare free for pregnant women holds the potential to radically improve the health of women and children. From the Thompson Reuters Foundation: Happy Mom and BabyKenya’s maternal mortality rate rose to 488 per 100,000 live births from 414 between 2003 and 2008/9. The country will not meet the Millennium Development Goal of a 75 percent drop in deaths between 1990 and 2015. The number of women giving birth in government health facilities has risen significantly since it introduced free maternity services on June 1.
“It’s around a 10 percent [increase in deliveries] around the country,” Shahnaz Sharif, the government’s director of public health and sanitation, told Thomson Reuters Foundation. “In some places it’s high. Busia County was a 50 percent increase.”
Giving birth with the help of a trained professional is critical for reducing maternal mortality,defined as the death of a woman while pregnant or within 42 days of termination from a cause related to the pregnancy. But 56 percent of Kenyan women give birth at home. The main reasons women gave for not delivering in a health facility were that services were too far away or there was no transport (42 percent), that it was unnecessary (21 percent), that their labour was too quick to have time to get there (18 percent) and that services were too expensive (17 percent).
In Nairobi’s Pumwani maternity hospital – the largest facility in the country – there was joy among mothers when the free maternity services were announced.
“A lot of women named their children after the president and the first lady,” said Wambui Waithaka, a doctor working there. The staff had been anxious over the implementation of the new policy, a key campaign pledge by President Uhuru Kenyatta ahead of Kenya’s March elections. But it has been well managed so far, Waithaka said. “They didn’t just hand us free maternity and walk away. They have actually followed up,” she said. The government is giving the hospital extra money each week to buy the things they need to treat patients. “We have not run out of gloves. We have not run out of medicines. Those were our fears,” said Waithaka. Extra doctors and nurses have also been sent to the hospital to deal with the influx.
However, facilities across the country are stretched. In Pumwani, there is a shortage of incubators. “The babies are all crammed into the incubators,” said Waithaka. “It’s one thing to get the woman into the hospital but you have to make sure what is going on in the hospital is quality, that what’s going on in the hospital is safe.”