A safer start to life – how Village Birth Attendants are saving lives in Papua New Guinea

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CARE Australia’s Lyrian Fleming saw firsthand how lives are being saved in remote Papua New Guinea (PNG).

Having a baby is something most women around the world will experience at least once in their lives. Here in Australia, having a child is often a joyous experience, and one which involves a high level of healthcare to keep mother and baby safe.

If we look just north of our border to PNG, however, the experience of becoming a mother there can be very different. The joyousness can be lost in complications and the threat posed to mother and baby when medical care is unavailable.

‘I gave birth to my youngest baby here, in this coffee garden right near this log. I haven’t ever had help to have my babies,’ said Wendy, a mother of six in PNG.

With one of the worst maternal health indicators in the entire Asia-Pacific region, PNG loses an alarming number of mothers and babies every single year. A lack of adequate medical care, due to their remoteness and a shortage of effective health services mean that mothers are at serious risk of death and disability during pregnancy and childbirth, and their babies are at high risk of dying too.

In Andakombi, a remote village in the Eastern Highlands of PNG, too many mothers have stories of complicated pregnancies gone wrong, giving birth to children in their homes, or in fields, or on the way to the health care centre as they walk on foot, heavily pregnant, to try and make it to medical care in time.

Nuli Ram has been working as a traditional midwife for over ten years and has seen many complicated pregnancies go wrong. ‘Before…there were problems. There was one lady from our village, she and the two twins died while she was giving birth… And my sister in law gave birth but had complications and her baby died too.’

But things are changing for mothers and babies in Andakombi, as CARE’s Village Birth Attendant program is training people to save lives. As part of CARE’s Integrated Community Development Project, CARE has trained 14 people from the hamlets located in and around Andakombi in basic maternal health.

Tima is one woman who has undergone the training and has since helped five women in her village give birth. ‘Before, mothers didn’t go to the clinic and some babies died, so I decided to volunteer to become a Village birth Attendant,’ says Tima.

The Village Birth Attendants (VBAs) receive training in birth delivery, monitoring and advising pregnant mothers, referring complicated pregnancies to the health centre, and family planning. The training is both theoretical and practical, with volunteers spending a week in the main hospital in Goroka, the main town, to gain practical experience in the skills they learn.

The improvements are being felt all over the valley. Goma, another VBA, tells the story of a woman who was experiencing complications in her pregnancy and had heard of CARE’s VBAs. She walked from a village two ridges away to seek their help. With her baby well overdue, Goma and Tima were able to help her deliver her baby safely, and refer her on to the health care centre for further care.

Nuli Ram has many stories like this from her work as a traditional midwife in the community for over a decade. Last year she underwent formal training to strengthen the skills she already had.

‘Some of the things I already knew before I became a VBA but some I learned at the training and I was really happy about that,’ says Nuli. ‘Now I also talk to the mothers and say that they must eat properly and eat a proper diet, not just kakau (sweet potato). I tell them that they have to bath every day, keep clean,’ she says.

While there are still many challenges for mothers and babies born in Andakombi, having access to trained support people to help them through pregnancy and childbirth is a big step in the right direction to improving the previously dismal maternal health figures in the village.

The challenge now is to extend programs like this much further in PNG, so even more mothers can benefit from safer childbirth, and babies are given a better start to life.