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Reflections on a Maternal Health Hero

January 28, 2013

The opportunity to hear our heroes speak doesn’t come around often. But at the recent conference in Tanzania on global maternal health, a true maternal health hero – Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla – offered up a message of hope for all maternal health advocates. It was the end of three days of meetings, and I seriously considered skipping out on the closing plenary session.  But – I knew Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla would be speaking and I have learned that one should never miss an opportunity to hear his thoughts.  Dr. Fathalla is a professor at Assiut University in Egypt, a former head of the reproductive health division at WHO, and the father of the Safe Motherhood initiative.  

The Global Maternal Health Conference (GHMC 2013) took place in Arusha, Northern Tanzania.  Dr. Fathalla’s speech, entitled “A Message to the Lady of Laetoli” delivered these points: 

We thank and we appreciate because we know the sacrifices and risks of women through the ages are the reasons we are here today.  We know that maternal mortality was extremely high until recently.  Where nothing is done to avert maternal mortality, “natural” mortality is around 1,000 to 1,500 per 100,000 live births.  A stunning fact to ponder:  Dr. Fathalla offered that more women have given up their lives in childbirth, for the survival of our species, than men have ever died in battle.  Humankind’s very existence is the gift and sacrifice of women. 

 More women have given up their lives in childbirth, for the survival of our species, than men have ever died in battle.

We regret and we apologize and we cannot expect forgiveness.  Women had to give up their lives when we did not have the means to prevent their deaths in pregnancy and childbirth.  And yet, when we do have the means, we still leave them to die.  We should plead guilty when we see that 800 women still die every day.  An inconvenient truth is that they die because societies have yet to make the decision that their lives can be saved. 

We promise we will eradicate maternal mortality, and yes, we can, for several reasons:

The work presented by participants at the GMHC Conference 2013 is evidence of the immense body of knowledge and commitment shared across disciplines and throughout all areas of the world.  Dr. Fathalla said he was gratified and comforted by the “new blood” to carry on this work.  He showed a picture of Malala, the young girl recently shot down for wanting an education and advocating for education on behalf of her peers.  He was gratified that she is recovering and moved by the statements of her classmates that they would not be stopped from getting an education – and “they will win.”

He also talked about the progress the world has made.  Between 1990 and 2010, maternal deaths dropped by 50 percent , but there still remains work to be done.

These written words can do no justice to the presence, dignity and inspiration of this gentle man, a hero who, as a colleague and friend remarked, through his life has saved countless lives. This was a reminder of why we get up every day to do the work we do. 

To read the full post, please visit the blog of the Maternal Health Task Force.

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