Maternal health gets a new boost in Liberia

With 1,072 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births, Liberia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world. In the remote areas, infrastructure and facilities in clinics are often lacking; midwives and health workers have to deliver babies without any electricity at night. With the installation of solar lighting systems by UN Women and partners, conditions have improved in 26 clinics and five newly constructed Maternal Waiting Rooms across Liberia.

Date: Tuesday, July 18, 2017

A dim ray of sunlight shines through the window of the Post-Partum Room at Bodowhea Clinic in Liberia’s River Cess County. In the small space, which is also used as a storeroom for drugs and other medical supplies, midwife Lorina Karway, 41, attends to a mother and her new born baby.

Due to the lack of electricity the night before, Karway and her colleagues had struggled to care for the pregnant woman who had been rushed to the clinic for an emergency delivery. This time, they were able to save the lives of the mother and her baby.

“It was a lucky night for us because the mother did not have any complications, so she gave birth safely,” says Karway. Had there been complications, the lack of adequate facilities would have made her work difficult.

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Midwife Lorina Karway attends to a new mother in the post-partum ward of the Bodowhea Clinic in River Cess Liberia. Photo: UN Women/Winston Daryoue

Last month, Karway helped in delivering 17 babies at the clinic, which caters to over 6,000 residents of the Morweh District of River Cess County.

“A few of those women arrived at the clinic with complications, and they had to be transferred to the St. Francis Hospital in Cestos City–102 kilometers away from Bodowhea [because they have better facilities],” shares Karway.

Maternal and child health care facilities at most health centres across Liberia are in dire need of basic infrastructure and support to operate efficiently. Every night, the Bodowhea Clinic lies in darkness. The nurses and other health workers on duty improvise by using light from their cellphones, or ask the patients to purchase gasoline for the clinic’s generator.

“It’s really challenging to assist with a delivery using my phone’s light, because I can’t see clearly. I have to hold the phone in my mouth while working. Doing [medical] procedures at night is almost impossible,” explains Karway. 

Under the H6 Joint Programme on Health (formerly H4+) —a partnership that brings together six UN agencies working in collaboration with the Liberian Government—UN Women has installed solar lighting systems in 26 health centres and in five maternal waiting rooms in rural Liberia, including the Bodowhea Clinic, to improve maternal and child healthcare services.

“For UN Women, ensuring adequate health care for women, children and communities is a basic starting point for improved lives and livelihoods,” says Ghoma Karloweah, UN Women Liberia Programme Manager. “By listening to the stories of health workers and community members, especially women, you can see how excited they are about the improvements at their health facilities. The installation of the lights and the overall interventions under the project are gradually changing how healthcare services are provided and how people access these services.”

With 1,072 maternal deaths for every 100,000 births, Liberia has one of the highest maternal mortality rates in the world, according to UNICEF. The mortality rate of newborns, within the first 28 days of life, is also high—37 for every 1,000 live births. At present, the Programme targets six of Liberia’s fifteen counties—Maryland, Grand Kru, River Gee, Grand Capemount, Gbarpolu and River Cess—which are also among the most remote areas with high incidents of maternal and child mortality.

At Jundu Community Clinic, located in Grand Cape Mount County, midwife Matilda Tolbert says that the improvements in the working environment and service delivery are noticeable since the installation of the solar lights: “It feels safer now to work at the clinic at night. In the past, once it was dark, we would go home and if there were emergencies, the patients or their families will rush and call us,” says Tolbert.

“Today, our patients do not have to worry about money to buy gasoline, and for us as health workers, having light means that we are able to care for our patients better,” she adds.

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Nurses and health workers at all of the 37 clinics supported with the solar lights have been trained in the maintenance and operations of the systems. Photo: UN Women/Winston Daryoue

As part of its efforts to improve maternal healthcare, UN Women, in partnership with Liberia’s Ministry of Health, has also trained 115 health workers and clinic staff in the six counties on how to operate and maintain the solar systems. The solar lighting system is built to work under severe weather conditions and with proper maintenance, can last up to fifteen years.

To date, additional medical equipment, including X-ray machines and ventilators, have been supplied to the clinics under the Joint Programme, and 736 health workers have been trained in preventive and promotive aspects of reproductive, maternal, newborn, child and adolescent health. 

The programme, contributes towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically Goal 3, which aims to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births. It also contributes towards the ‘Every Women, Every Child’ initiative, a global movement that mobilizes actions to address the major health challenges of women and children.