Born in a War Zone

July 18, 2011 | Paula Neudorf

A midwife in Foladi, Afghanistan, measures a pregnant woman's stomach on June 9, 2010. (Photo: Kate Holt)

Recent news points to the dramatic effects that war can have on pregnant women and their newborn offspring — in a story published yesterday about Sierra Leone, The New York Times notes that, “Sierra Leone, still scarred by a brutal decade-long civil war…hovered at or near the bottom in maternal and infant mortality tables.” One reason for this is that “the nihilistic rebels of the Revolutionary United Front deliberately took aim at health care facilities, as symbols of government authority.”

As in Sierra Leone, armies in Syria and Libya have targeted medical facilities, as well as ambulances and medics. And for pregnant women, access to health facilities and aid can be crucial. As one medic for Doctors Without Borders in Libya said in an interview, “Obstetric care is both an ongoing need and an emergency need.” On top of this, “war can put a lot of stress on pregnant women, who are then more likely to face complications.”

The newly independent South Sudan, which has suffered years of conflict and also intense poverty, has the highest reported maternal mortality rate in the world — 2,054 per 100,000 live births according to a 2006 survey (compare that figure with the rest of the world here, in a chart compiled by The Guardian with data from The Lancet).

Before South Sudan became independent, Afghanistan, another war-torn country, had the world’s highest mortality rate, at 1,400 per 10,000 live births, according to 2008 data from the World Health Organization.