DAKAR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Ebola crisis is putting the lives of pregnant woman and infants at risk with the spread of the virus in West Africa eroding health services needed for a safe birth and postnatal care, a United Nations official said on Thursday.
The United Nation’ Population Fund (UNFPA) said up to 800,000 women in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia were expected to give birth in the next year but many are afraid to visit clinics or turned away from overstretched health facilities.
It warned more than 120,000 could die of complications of pregnancy and childbirth if the required life-saving emergency obstetric care, such as caesarean sections, was not provided.
The warning came as a leading medical aid group, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), was forced to shut down a 200-bed emergency pediatric and maternity clinic in Sierra Leone on Thursday due to fears that the medical staff could not guarantee safety for patients or staff from infection.
Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever spread through contact with infected fluids that kills about half its victims, has so far killed almost 4,500 in West Africa and infected almost 9,000 others since it first emerged in Guinea in March.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned Ebola could infect up to 10,000 people per week by December unless international efforts are stepped up to control the disease.
“The reality is that pregnant women are facing a double threat – dying from Ebola, and from pregnancy or childbirth, due to the devastating impact of Ebola on health workers and health systems,” said UNFPA Executive Director Babatunde Osotimehin in a statement.
“Ebola is not only killing those infected, but also those affected. Pregnant women and girls are at greater risk.”
In Sierra Leone, around one in every 100 births result in the mother dying which is 100 times more than in northern European countries like Britain.
One in every 10 children in Sierra Leone dies before the age of one, according to the World Bank.
Brice de le Vigne, MSF Director of operations, said the closure of the Gondama Referral Centre in Bo, 250 kms (155 miles) southeast of Sierra Leone’s capital Freetown, was a difficult decision to make.
“The safety of our staff must remain our top priority and if we cannot guarantee flawless infection control in the hospital, we are putting our staff and patients at risk,” he said.
Doctors and nurses are at the frontline during Ebola outbreaks as they are the first port of call for victims infected by the deadly virus and many have died as a result.
The WHO says at least 230 health workers have died since the outbreak began - about five percent of the death toll to date.
Despite the recent arrival of 150 Cuban doctors and nurses last week in Monrovia, aid agencies working on the ground have found it increasingly difficult to find health workers to come and work in Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia.
UNFPA says it is providing emergency safe delivery kits, personal protective equipment and infection prevention supplies, such as chlorine bleach, gloves and masks.
Osotimehin said urgent funding was needed to meet the reproductive health needs of women in affected countries.
“The situation for pregnant women in Ebola crisis countries is devastating. Gains in maternal health and family planning are being wiped out and women are desperate for information and services to protect their health and that of their babies,” said Osotimehin.
Reporting By Misha Hussain, Editing by Belinda Goldsmith