On a dusty gravel road to the Afghanistan border, in between the horn blasts from passing trucks, the faint cries of newborn babies can be heard from inside the Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) birthing unit in the town of Kuchlak, in Pakistan’s south western Balochistan province.
Inside a neat and newly painted room a young mother in her twenties has just given birth. It is her third child. She lies spent at the effort, while midwives attend to the newborn. It is a boy and she is happy that she has borne her labourer husband a son who will grow up to look after the family.
To outsiders there should be nothing extraordinary about her delivery. But this young mother has just survived an event that claims the lives of thousands of women living in rural Balochistan, the largest and least developed Pakistani province. Here childbirth is a deadly part of life – claiming women’s lives because they cannot access proper maternal healthcare in time. In 2007 the maternal mortality rate in Balochistan stood at an alarming 637 deaths per 100,000 live births2. While infant mortality figures are estimated to be around of 65 deaths per 1,000 live births3.
That is more than double the national average for Pakistan, which, in 2005, had the eighth4 highest number of maternal deaths worldwide, at around 320 per 100,000. Couple this with the low number of nurses and midwives in the country – five nurses and midwives per 10,000 people5 - and the dangers of childbirth and the serious need in Pakistan become clear.
Kuchlak, a 30-minute drive from Quetta, is a town of about 120,000 people who live in hardship and some in abject poverty. Several parts of the town resemble a makeshift camp that has become a permanent fixture for the Afghan refugees who fled to Pakistan during the civil war in the 1980’s and again later during further conflicts. MSF set up its project to assist Afghan refugees who face socio-economic exclusion and restricted access to health care, particularly for women and children.
MSF has been operating a maternal and child health centre here since 2006. MSF is the one of the very few organisations offering free medical services, ranging from ante-natal consultations, obstetrics and gynaecology, post-natal care, vaccinations and general health consultations for children under five. Doctors assess patients and are able to prescribe and dispense medicines from the pharmacy, while a laboratory performs tests to detect malaria, cutaneous leishmaniasis, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, diabetes and anaemia in pregnant women.
Every week about 1,000 patients seek treatment at the outpatient facility, where children up to five years old are also treated. At the birthing unit an average of 150 to 170 women give birth every month.
For a community living in perpetual poverty, free medical services are a lifeline that they otherwise struggle to afford. Women here, whose husbands earn a pittance as labourers, have to pay thousands of rupees to give birth in public hospitals. They have to borrow money from relatives and neighbours to receive proper medical attention, which they invariably struggle to repay.
“Most pregnant women here still have to journey for up to an hour or more to give birth, and many women still give birth at home, because they have no choice,” said Dr Amna Hammad, a female medical doctor working at the centre.
A short distance from the maternal and child health centre, past a small bustling market place lies the rural health centre of the Ministry of Health, where MSF supports services.
MSF runs a nutrition programme here because needs are acute, considering that just over 30 percent of children younger than five in Pakistan are underweight for their age.
Two tiny infants, twins Hamida and Ansa, have just been brought into the clinic by their gaunt, breastfeeding mother. She is an Afghan refugee who settled here in Kuchlak, but lives a hard nomadic life. The twins are 10 days old. Ansa is visibly smaller and malnourished.
“I married at 13 or 14 years old. I am now about 38 years old. It took me over an hour to walk here. I came alone,” the twins’ mother said matter-of-factly.
So far she has given birth to five boys and four girls. But three of her babies died before reaching their first birthday because she could not afford formula milk, nor could she produce enough breast milk.
Staff nurse Hamdullah Kaka oversees the nutrition project that has treated 1,200 severely malnourished children since it opened in 2006. Currently 60 children are enrolled in the programme, which ensures recovery by monitoring their progress with follow-up visits. The patients here have taken to calling him “uncle” because of his gentle and caring way with children and their mothers alike.
Although poverty is the leading cause of malnutrition in this community, some mothers only feed their children when they think the infants are hungry. Others give their babies painkillers to prevent them from crying when they are hungry. “We are trying to change that by providing them with a quality service and guidance,” Dr Mirwais Wardak, senior MSF doctor at the project, explains.
- 2 http://www.dailytimes.com.pk/default.asp?page=2007\01\08\story_8-1-2007_pg7_2
- 3 http://www.intute.ac.uk/worldguide/html/985_people.html
- 4 Maternal Mortality in 2005: Estimates developed by WHO, UNICEF, UNFPA, and The World Bank : www.who.int/whosis/mme_2005.pdf
- 5 WHO, World Health Statistics 2009, available at: http://www.who.int/whosis/whostat/2009/en/index.html.
MSF has been providing medical care in a maternal health and a rural health centre in Kuchlak since early 2005. MSF medical teams see more than 10,000 patients every month, mostly women and children from Kuchlak and surrounding towns and villages. Every month, 300 antenatal care consultations are performed and between 150 and 170 women come to the maternal health centre for deliveries. Mental health counsellors organise up to 600 counselling sessions providing psychological support for men and women every month. In September 2008, MSF started treating cutaneous leishmaniasis: between 15 to 30 patients are treated every month. MSF also runs a programme to treat malnutrition, which not only receives patients from Kuchlak but some of the surrounding remote districts where poverty, poor land and conflict severely affect living conditions.
MSF does not accept funding from any government for its work in Pakistan and chooses to rely solely on private donations. MSF has been working in Pakistan since 1998.