Zimbabwe's newborn mortality rate has increased amidst a forgotten crisis
Shelly has worked in maternal and newborn healthcare for her entire career. First as a midwife, where she was responsible for bringing “at least” a thousand new Zimbabweans into the world. And now, as UNICEF Zimbabwe’s Health Specialist, where she’s making sure mothers and newborns have the best chance of survival in one of the world’s most dangerous places to be pregnant.
Mothers in Zimbabwe are more than 76 times more likely to lose their lives during childbirth
than in Australia. The healthcare sector hasn't always been under this level of strain however.
Over the course of her 30 year career, Shelly’s seen Zimbabwe move between times of elation and extreme hardship.
Right now, she’s worried.
“We are looking at Zimbabwe. Everything is just collapsing. The road network is collapsing. We have no fuel in the country. Right now, it is bleak,” she says. “In this current situation, it’s a hard job to bring life into the world.”
One of Shelly’s most devastating experiences as a midwife came after a routine job for her and fellow medical staff; travelling out to rural areas to collect a woman giving birth.
On one of these trips the mother and newborn both passed away before reaching the hospital.
“When the husband followed the following day, because he couldn’t get into the ambulance, when he was walking towards me, he looked excited because he hoped things did go well at the hospital. So, I had to deliver the sad news that we’d lost the wife and we’d lost the baby. And this was a young mother with two more children at home all under the age of five. So as a midwife when you get to that situation you really feel bad,” Shelly says.
"Sometimes you ask yourself ‘did we
do everything that could be done?."
Zimbabwe is facing extreme challenges right now in the healthcare sector; drought, power and fuel shortages have made giving birth very dangerous. On top of this, amid warnings from the World Health Organisation that Africa must prepare for an increase in coronavirus infections, the country has gone into lockdown and many UNICEF programs have shifted focus towards preparedness and prevention.
The country is still battling to increase mass testing and the number of treatment clinics; adding an unprecedented strain on hospitals.
As a result of the traumatic conditions under which healthcare staff work, many are talking about a ‘brain drain’ across the country. A lot of the best doctors and nurses are leaving Zimbabwe to work in neighbouring countries with better remuneration and facilities.
“Nobody wants to watch a woman bleed to death or have a fit convulsion and they die because you have no drugs or the medicines are not there,” Shelly says, worried about what this means for the future of the sector.
UNICEF’s work is crucial right now as we fill these absolutely devastating gaps by providing essential services and supporting hospitals and staff.