Matercare takes aim at women's health in Africa

By 
  • June 5, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - In Sierra Leone and Kenya, women die from child birth or related complications on a weekly basis. But Dr. Robert Walley, president of Matercare International, hopes to change that by raising $5.5 million to equip both countries with the specialized services women need.

“What we’re doing is a double program,” he said. “It’s to make sure women in rural areas get the right care so they don’t die or get obstetric fistulae and we’re setting up a training program for doctors and midwives and the other traditional birth attendants.”

Walley, who founded Matercare in 1995 to help “breathe” life back into the profession of obstetrics and gynecology through forums on spiritual, bioethical and professional concerns, has been visiting African countries since 1981.

“I had never seen a mother die just because she was pregnant and I haven’t seen one in Canada all the years that I’ve been practising,” he said. “But in that mission hospital in that remote part of Nigeria I went to, we’d get many — sometimes four in a weekend.”

Since that first emotional experience, Walley has continued to practise gynecology and obstetrics in Newfoundland, while returning to different parts of Africa periodically.

“Of the eight (United Nations) millennium goals designed to reduce poverty by 2015, the improvement of women’s health is the most neglected,” he said, adding that Sierra Leone and Kenya are among the worst places to give birth because of the lack of medical infrastructure.

Isiolo sits in the centre of Kenya, but its administrative district and apostolic vicariate of the Catholic Church includes the upper half of the nation, about 27,000 square kilometres.

Two years ago, the now-deceased bishop of Isiolo contacted Walley asking for help in finding a  health care solution for women during pregnancy and labour. Walley, who was on his way to Rwanda, stopped in Isiolo to assess the situation and determined a specialized hospital was necessary.

The area’s women, like many African women, suffered from obstetric fistulae, a condition resulting from obstructed labour that damages the rectum and bladder of a new mother — preventable through caesarian section. The damage leaves a woman incontinent.

“It’s an international disgrace that mothers should die and also that they should endure this debilitating, humiliating, painful result of neglect if they didn’t get a caesarian section,” said Walley.

Walley said  the European Commission, an executive branch of the European Union, has pledged to give a percentage of the $5.5 million required, although Canadian agencies have been and continue to be unwilling to fund anything other than birth control and abortions.

“We say we’re out here to offer life and hope rather than death and despair,” Walley said. “There’s enough of that in Africa as it is without adding to it.”

Walley said Canadians should be ashamed that tax money to funding agencies is used for abortions instead of helping organizations like Matercare willing to provide professional medical procedures, assistance and training.

Bishop Anthony Mucobo, who took over the apostolic vicariate of Isiolo shortly after Walley’s help was requested, said he is very excited that a specialized hospital will be built. Matercare plans to equip it, and a hospital in Sierra Leone, for up to five years.

“I feel this project of Matercare will be so beneficial to the people of Isiolo and to the people of Kenya,” Mucobo said. “It is going to be strategically placed and will supplement the church and the government effort in giving health care to the people.”

In Kenya 40 per cent of the country’s health care is funded by the Catholic Church, with the rest funded by the government.

However, with the desert-like climate, nomadic way of life and even some damaging cultural traditions, Isiolo’s women face many life-threatening obstacles.

“Isiolo is the starting of the most neglected side of the country,” Mucobo said. “The hospital will help in the way of formation, of the training and education of the women to prevent some of the diseases which really affect women and it will equip existing midwives with the knowledge necessary to attend to women with emergencies which might not even be needed to take to the health centre.”

Mucobo said that besides the difficulties resulting from child birth, women also need medical care because of the widespread risk of malaria and AIDS in Africa. And, despite the fact that female genital mutilation was banned by the Kenyan government in recent years, most women “of age” have undergone the damaging procedure, which further complicates child birth, he said.

Mucobo and Walley were in Toronto during May to spread awareness of the project.

For information on Matercare International, see www.matercare.org.

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