“Safe surgery should be a basic right that is available to all women who require it during childbirth.”

Isabeau is a Consultant Paediatric Anaesthetist in London, Vice President of the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland and a trustee of Lifebox Foundation.

Who needs a Caesarean section?

We are so used to people talking about caesarean section rates that are too high, and women who are ‘too posh to push’. But for a woman in obstructed labour or with a low-lying placenta, a caesarean section is a life saving procedure, for herself, the baby, or for both…

Safe surgery should be a basic right that is available to all women who require it during childbirth.

Is this not the case?

No, this is definitely not the case. Thousands of mother’s lives could be saved if surgery was prioritised within all health systems. Tens of thousands could be saved from debilitating injuries, and millions of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, or newborn birth injuries could be avoided.

The rates for caesarean section in poor communities in sub-Saharan Africa or southern Asia are consistently less than 2%. It isn’t clear what the ‘minimum’ rate for caesarean section should be, although some academics have suggested that at least 5% of all births should be by c-section; so it is likely that many women die in these communities because they don’t have access to safe surgery.

Thousands of mother’s lives could be saved if surgery was prioritised within all health systems, not just those in high-income countries. Many more women could be saved from debilitating injuries, and millions of stillbirths, neonatal deaths, or newborn birth injuries could be avoided.

What does this mean for a woman in labour in a low-resource country?

Lamula’s story is a true account written by Juliet Tumwebaze, an anaesthetic officer working in Uganda.

Lamula was a mother from a rural village in obstructed labour, carried on the back of her husband’s bicycle ‘amidst her screaming’ for 4 hours to the local health centre. When she got there, they found that the hospital was not equipped to help her.

WHO has estimated that 800 women die every day due to complications of pregnancy or childbirth, and 7300 babies are stillborn, with almost half of stillbirths occurring when the mother is in labour. 99% of these deaths occur in low-resource countries and could be avoided.

Is global surgery keeping pace with technology?

As we develop ever more sophisticated equipment to improve patient safety in high-income countries, patients in low-income countries are denied even the most basic of surgical care. The gap between what we know and what we can deliver in poorer parts of the world seems to be widening.

Does that mean available surgery becomes unsafe?

Yes, definitely. A number of publications in the last few years have surveyed facilities in rural hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa, and found that they are not staffed or equipped to deliver even basic surgery. So there is poor access to surgery, and when surgery is provided, the essential equipment to provide safe surgery is often not there.

What are the repercussions?

When a young woman dies during childbirth, it is a tragedy for the whole family. The health, education and economic prospects for the entire family are affected, and the risk of the surviving children dying is increased. An effective way to make a difference is for patients to stand up and tell their stories, and to demand better services. Sadly, these women’s voices are rarely heard, so it is particularly important on International Woman’s Day that we tell their stories in solidarity.