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05/27/2013

Saving mothers and babies

 SarahZeid
Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan, a maternal health advocate for the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children, at the 66th World Health Assembly in Geneva last week. (Jennifer Yang/Toronto Star)

Meet Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan. In 2009, she nearly died after suffering an amniotic fluid embolism -- considered one of the most catastrophic complications of pregnancy  -- while giving birth to her third child, a daughter named Azziza. For 24 hours, she didn't know if she would live or die.

 

Today, both she and her daughter are healthy and thriving and Zeid has become a passionate advocate for the UN Commission on Life-Saving Commodities for Women and Children. Last week, she spoke at a side event on women and child health at the 66th World Health Assembly, which I attended under a UN Foundation press fellowship.

Zeid has long been aware of maternal health issues but her near-death experience four years ago was the "lightning bolt" that made her "really, really understand what this means and the impact it has."

"(I) had to face the very real possibility that I was going to die and that my eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter and this tiny little girl were going to be left without a mother. And the horror and the fear of that has stayed with me ever since," she said in an interview last week.

"But my children -- they would have been loved, they would have been educated, and their lives would not have been at risk."

In low and middle income countries, she said, maternal orphans have greatly decreased survival rates and a greater risk of disease, lack of education and exploitation.

"The ripple effect of a mother's death has a huge impact," she said. "Really, the health of our mothers and our children are what is going to ensure sustainable development and bring about a healthy world."

For Zeid, a promising solution lies in improving access to 13 high-impact and low-cost commodities identified by the UN Commission. They include three family planning commodities -- the female condom, implants and emergency contraception -- and things like chlorhexidine (which can prevent one in six neonatal deaths, according to estimates) and zinc to treat diarrhea, which kills an estimated 1.5 million children every year.

But some of the commodities come with controversy, particularly emergency contraception (frowned upon by the Vatican) and misoprostol, which is increasingly being used as a tool for preventing postpartum hemoragghing in developing countries.

With respect to misoprostol, "seldom has there been a drug that has excited as much controversy," The Guardian's Sarah Boseley wrote last August -- this is partly due to lingering skepticism over its efficacy but mostly because the drug can also be used to induce abortions.

For Zeid, she maintains the commodities are effective tools for preventing maternal and child deaths if used for their intended purpose -- the UN Commission estimates that over 6 million lives can be saved if the 13 commodities are scaled up over the next five years.

And the world is now one step closer to that goal -- last week, delegates at the World Health Assembly approved a resolution to implement the UN Commission's recommendations on improving the quality and supply of the 13 commodities.

"We know they work. They exist. We just have to get them out there," Zeid said. "It's a tangible, practical effort that we can address very quickly."

Jennifer Yang is the Star’s global health reporter. She previously worked as a general assignment reporter and won a NNA in 2011 for her explanatory piece on the Chilean mining disaster. Follow her on Twitter: @jyangstar

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