Giving birth in an Ebola epidemic: 1 in 7 women could die | ActionAid UK

Sarah Alexander

ActionAid Ambassador

Last year, actress and ActionAid Ambassador Sarah Alexander visited health centres and maternity wards in Bo, now one of the worst Ebola hit areas in Sierra Leone. Here, in a guest blog for ActionAid, Sarah talks about the huge risks for women giving birth in the heart of the Ebola epidemic.

Sarah Alexander, with a new mother in a small but functioning birth waiting home, built with support from ActionAid Sarah Alexander with midwife Mary Angela and Iye Mammy, 25, holding her newborn baby, Bo, Sierra Leone

A year ago, I was sat in a medical centre with Mary – a midwife who delivers a baby a day across 15 communities - discussing the importance of increasing the medical services available to pregnant women. She has one pair of forceps and sometimes delivers two babies at the same time.

Before ActionAid built the medical centre Mary worked in, women often died during labour, as they had to make a five-mile journey on foot to the nearest hospital.

Having given birth twice, I couldn’t begin to imagine going through it on my own, in the middle of the bush, with no help and no support, let alone any drugs.

1 in 7 women may die in childbirth

So it saddened and shocked me when I heard that, in Ebola affected Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea, one in seven women could die in childbirth.

Imagine giving birth in the middle of the Ebola epidemic:

  • You’re too afraid to visit health facilities because of the fear and stigma around Ebola.
  • Back home, no one will help you, because they’re afraid of contact with bodily fluids, which is how the virus spreads.
  • So eventually you travel all the way to a health facility but they turn you away as they’re already overstretched trying to cope with Ebola patients.
  • Tired and alone, you end up giving birth in the streets, with no one to help you because people fear coming near you, and feeling vulnerable and scared for the safety of you and your newborn baby.

This is the reality for many women in Ebola affected West Africa right now.

Ebola ‘Miracle’ baby

The medical centre I visited in Sierra Leone was basic. The delivery room was small and, compared to the UK, pretty run down. But the women I met were receiving the care and attention they needed. It breaks my heart to think that now, because of the fear of Ebola, even the most basic of care is being denied to women at their most vulnerable.

ActionAid has told me about a woman they’ve been helping in Liberia, who was forced to give birth on her own, because everyone around her – even the nurses - were too scared to touch her, in case she had Ebola. Luckily she gave birth to a healthy baby girl, who she named ‘Miracle’.

More help needed for women

In Sierra Leone, ActionAid will soon be working with the government’s District Health Management Teams to provide cleaning materials and protective equipment to keep hospitals safe for pregnant women, as well as running media campaigns to encourage pregnant women to visit hospitals.

But more must be done to stop this horrendous prediction of 1 in 7 women dying in childbirth coming true. We have to ensure that pregnant women get the care they urgently need otherwise we will see the rate of maternal deaths skyrocket. Ebola has taken enough lives already.

Further reading on Ebola