Giving birth is the most natural event, but 120 years ago, it was often life-threatening. Childbirth practices across the region varied, with most births taking place at home, as hospitals were hard to access and only available for severe complications.
The history of maternal health has gone through many transformations over the past 120 years. At PAHO’s inception, the maternal death rate was high due to a lack of obstetric education.
Progress and changes in maternity care, especially the notion of a “humanized birth,” with attention to the wellbeing of the mother and baby throughout pregnancy to birth, have led to fewer preventable deaths. PAHO has been helping countries in the region to standardize care and reduce mortality rates by implementing safer birthing practices.
It was in 1970 that PAHO, following the work of Dr. Caldeyro Barcia, set up the Latin American Center for Perinatology, Women and Reproductive Health (CLAP) in Montevideo, Uruguay. Dr. Barcia was a pioneer in researching the health of the fetus as well developing a more “humanized childbirth,” which contributed to a more positive birthing experience.
Between 2010 and early 2020, newborn deaths were reduced by 14 percent in the region, and in five years, maternal mortality was reduced by almost 17 percent in 14 countries.
CLAP shares best practices to promote, strengthen and improve health care for women, mothers, and newborns across the region. The Centre has been instrumental in reducing maternal deaths by supporting initiatives and programs, which include sharing the latest birthing protocols, publishing guidelines, training medical staff in hospitals as well as midwives in remote communities.
Today, despite advances, pregnant women continue to die of excessive blood loss, infection, high blood pressure, unsafe abortion, and obstructed labor. PAHO estimates that the majority of maternal deaths in Latin America and the Caribbean are preventable.
In Bolivia, PAHO trained health professionals in the use of life-saving equipment. Carla Botetano, who was bleeding heavily while pregnant, was saved by one such intervention. While Botetano was being transferred on a stretcher, PAHO-trained medical staff wrapped her in a heavy suit called a “non-pneumatic anti-shock garment,” a key device for reducing the risk of maternal death due to hemorraghe, as it warms up the patient and helps stop bleeding.
Bolivia has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the Americas, with hemorrhage the main cause of maternal death, claiming the lives of 160 women every year. Since 2016, PAHO with the support of the Canadian government, has trained over 400 medical staff in the use of the anti-shock garment and other techniques to prevent maternal death.