LONDON (Reuters) - The rate of women dying in childbirth in West African countries hit by the Ebola epidemic is soaring, with as many as one in seven at risk of death as fear of contact with bodily fluids prevents people helping them, aid charities warned on Tuesday.
The United Nations Population Fund estimates that 800,000 women in Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia are due to give birth in the next 12 months.
Of these, some 120,000 could face life-threatening complications if they don’t get the emergency care they need and tens of thousands could die, according to the DEC group of 13 leading UK charities, including Save The Children and ActionAid.
Korto Williams, head of ActionAid in Liberia, said many women were being left to give birth alone because stigma and ignorance meant people around them feared they might have Ebola and stayed away.
Too many women have died because of lack of care, she said, adding video clips on the internet show women giving birth in the streets of Monrovia with no one helping.
She said the “horrendous prediction” of one in seven women dying in childbirth was a “worst case scenario” but added: “We have to do more to ... stop this coming true. We have to ensure that pregnant women get the care they urgently need or we will see the rate of maternal deaths skyrocket.”
The world’s worst Ebola epidemic, which emerged in Guinea in March, has infected more than 13,000 people and killed almost 5,000 in the three worst-hit countries, according to World Health Organization (WHO) figures.
Global health specialists have warned that with clinics overwhelmed with thousands of Ebola cases, people with other diseases like malaria or tuberculosis, and those with conditions needing medical care, are likely to suffer.
“Ebola is having a huge impact on wider health issues like maternal healthcare,” said Save the Children’s chief executive Justin Forsyth. “No children have gone to school since March and pregnant mums are avoiding health clinics and hospitals.”
In a joint statement, the 13 charities said speeding up the creation of more Ebola-focused treatment centers so that other health facilities can function normally would be essential to avoiding the feared rise in maternal deaths.
The group also called for more protective and sanitation equipment to be provided, as well as treatment units specifically for health workers, to enable midwives to work safely and without unnecessary risks.
Editing by Janet Lawrence