TOPICS > Health

Global Rise in C-Sections Troubles Experts

BY Chantal Anderson and PRI's The World  August 9, 2011 at 12:21 PM EDT

Babies in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo by Flickr user Sumaiya Ahmed.

Dhaka, BANGLADESH—It’s one of the most common surgical operations in the United States and many say it’s performed far too often: the Caesarean section.

Almost one-third of American babies are now delivered surgically, and the trend is not limited to the United States. The C-section rate in Thailand has reached 34 percent, in Vietnam, it is 36 percent, and in China, nearly half of all births are by C-section.

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In Bangladesh, many women who choose C-sections say they do so for convenience and to avoid the pain of childbirth. It is primarily the middle and upper classes that opt for C-sections, but the rate is also rising among the poor.

“That is a complete change,” said Sister Gillian Rose, who runs Bollobhpur Hospital in West Bangladesh.

Rose sees the growing rate of C-sections as a troubling trend. She said one of the reasons more women are having Caesareans is that private doctors at private clinics are telling women they need the surgery when they do not.

“Private clinics are just springing up like the plague with no government regulation, and the doctors basically are getting rich quick,” said Rose.

And while doctors may be profiting, some women may be suffering.

“In settings where surgery is not safe, what we have been seeing is increased risk of hysterectomy and other severe complications,” said João Paulo Souza, an obstetrician for the World Health Organization who has studied the ballooning number of C-sections in developing countries.

Dr. Shams El Arifeen, a senior health researcher in Dhaka, said there is another downside to the booming rate of C-sections in poor countries like Bangladesh. These countries have a limited capacity to provide safe surgical births, so when women undergo unnecessary C-sections, “those who actually need [them] are… being pushed out of that system,” he said.

El Arifeen said in Bangladesh the problem is not the overall rate of C-sections, which stands at 12 percent and falls within WHO recommendations. The problem, he said, is that many women who have C-sections do not need them, and many who do need them go without.

Chantal Anderson, a journalist with the Common Language Project, reported this story for PRI’s The World.  Find more of her stories from Bangladesh at clpmag.org.