Barnes talks maternal health

Every 90 seconds, a woman dies during pregnancy or childbirth.

At the Anylan Center Monday afternoon, Pamela W. Barnes, president and CEO of EngenderHealth, spoke to an audience of about 20 students and professors on the innovations and challenges of providing sexual and reproductive health worldwide. Organized by public health professor Michael Skonieczny, the talk highlighted the work yet to be done to improve the quality of health care in the world’s poorest countries.

“Momentum behind maternal health has never been greater,” Barnes said. “But putting it into action, we’re not there yet.”

EngenderHealth is an international reproductive health organization that has worked in partnership with governments, institutions, communities and health professionals since 1943. Although it does not set up private clinics, EngenderHealth equips people with information on contraception, motherhood and gender equity; enhances the quality of HIV and AIDS services; and advocates for policy change within developing nations.

Organizations like EngenderHealth have made great progress in advancing global maternal health, Barnes said. Over the last 30 years the maternal mortality rate has decreased by over 30 percent worldwide.

But one of the major challenges these organizations face is the lack of a coordinated effort focused on improving global maternal health, Barnes said. In order to be truly effective, people and organizations with similar goals need to come together instead of pursuing their projects independently, she said.

“I’m really strong on this idea,” Barnes said. “We cannot talk about maternal health in silo.”

Local rumors about Western health practices and the biases of the health workers themselves are also problematic. A few years ago, EngenderHealth noticed in their statistics that a local clinic had rising numbers of HIV/AIDS tests while the number of patients dropped dramatically. When they investigated, they realized that the doctors working in the clinic were using the tests as a selective method to turn away patients.

“If you had HIV/AIDS, you weren’t allowed to receive health care,” Barnes said. “That was not what we trained them for.”

But sometimes health care policies cause unexpected outcomes, Barnes said. While meeting health ministers in India, Barnes said she found out that many clinics were overwhelmed with patients after the government introduced a new policy that paid women to deliver their babies in clinics. Although the scheme was supposed to encourage women to give birth in more sanitary conditions, the clinics became too crowded to fulfill this goal. After being turned away from a clinic, one woman died on the side of a road with her newborn baby in her hands.

“Translating policy into action is one of the challenges that I am trying to tackle nowadays,” Barnes said.

In spite of these difficulties, Barnes said she is still motivated to work in the field and is hopeful that a new generation of health policy leaders will act together to further work on maternal health.

Students in attendance said they enjoyed the chance to listen to an expert in the field of public health.

“Her experiences showed the practical aspects of global health,” Clare Greene SPH ’12 said. “This definitely adds much more to the theoretical ideas we have been discussing in class.”

Emily Dally SPH ’12 and Anna Zonderman SPH ’12 also said that Barnes’ ideas complement their hypothetical proposals, which were one of their class assignments.

“I love her. She is so inspiring and passionate, and she has so much experience in the field,” Megan McInnis SPH ’12 said. “I want to be like her.”

EngenderHealth was founded in 1943.

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