Africa experiences the highest rates of maternal deaths of any continent worldwide. According to the World Health Organization, maternal mortality is higher in developing countries, and women living in rural areas or in poorer communities are especially vulnerable.
The majority of maternal deaths can be prevented with adequate access to health care and nutrition before, during, and after pregnancy. However the rate of this tragedy in Africa is mostly linked to poverty-related factors.
These factors not only negatively affect the expectant mother, but also their child.
Malnutrition and a lack of access to health care can have a serious impact on infants and children.
Stunting, which is caused by malnutrition, is a major problem in Africa. When a child is stunted, it means that they have experienced prolonged under-nutrition, which has affected their physical and brain development. The period where children are most vulnerable is in the first 1,000 days of life — including the period in the mother's womb.
Children who are stunted are more likely to face learning difficulties, as well as growing to be a lot shorter than children who are not stunted. They’re also most likely to experience health issues in their adulthood, including diabetes and obesity.
According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Africa has the world’s highest rate of stunting in children under the age of 5, and has made the slowest progress in reducing stunting since 1990.
But a lack of nutrition is just one of the issues contributing to poor maternal and infant health in Africa.
Access to maternal health care
According to The Conversation, more than two-thirds of the world’s maternal deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa. The leading cause of this is inadequate access to quality health care during pregnancy, delivery, or after birth.
Most women who are in rural and poorer communities in Africa struggle to access the adequate care required for a healthy pregnancy.
According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), in countries where the rate of maternal mortality is higher, such as Ethiopia, less than half of the women can afford to make it to at least one antenatal visit.
In some cases, the quality of health care is poor and even if the first antenatal check-up is free, the following visits often are not, which can deter women from returning.
The lack of qualified personnel and health care infrastructure can also heavily contribute to maternal mortality in Africa. The UNFPA points out that bleeding during pregnancy or childbirth accounts for one quarter of all maternal deaths in East and Southern Africa, and can be reduced with the provision of better health care facilities.
Africa has the highest rates of premature and adolescent childbearing in the world, according to UNICEF — with the rates being particularly high in the Central African Republic, Niger, Chad, Angola, and Mali.
In fact, pregnancy and maternal conditions are the leading causes of death among girls aged 15-19 globally, with the majority of these occurring in Africa.
As adolescents are still developing to a state of maturity, premature pregnancy among them needs to be closely monitored, and antenatal and postnatal care are especially crucial.
Unfortunately, the fact is that fewer young mothers receive skilled delivery or postnatal care for themselves or their newborn children.
Food security is a persistent problem across the continent, and is mostly linked to poverty, but can also be attributed to environmental and socio-political factors, such as climate change and conflict.
Because of this, expectant mothers in poorer regions are more vulnerable to a lack of nutrition for both themselves and their child.
According to a study conducted by researchers at Makerere Medical School in Uganda, this can contribute to increased mortality in mothers and infants, and can also affect physical and cognitive development in children.
The study also found that malnutrition is the cause of a cycle of maternal issues in some cases. For example a short maternal stature which is often caused by childhood stunting in girls, is a significant risk factor for obstructed labour and caesarean delivery.
Malnutrition is a serious issue that can lead to health complications and even death. Millions of people in Africa have difficulty accessing food as a result of poverty. This can heavily impact expectant mothers and can result in stunting or maternal complications. To help make sure that the continent sees an end to food insecurity, take action here.