A survey was carried out in one district each in Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia to establish which factors are associated with health facility childbirth (thus shedding light on which factors are associated with the decision to give birth elsewhere, perhaps at home). Health seeking behavior is strongly associated with wealth, education, and urban residence; wealthier, better educated women living in urban areas, in general, are more likely to give birth in a health facility.
These factors are of especial interest because of their association with HIV. Wealthier, employed, better educated, urban dwelling women in African countries are often more, rather than less likely, to be infected with HIV. The tables below are for Kenya, Tanzania and Zambia, but these trends can also be found in other countries. The first table shows HIV prevalence by wealth quintile, with prevalence being lower among poorer people and higher among wealthier people.
The next table shows HIV prevalence in males and females, by employment and by urban/rural residence. Males are far less likely to be infected than females, unemployed people are less likely to be infected than employed people and rural dwelling people are less likely to be infected than urban dwelling people.
The third table shows that HIV prevalence is sometimes lower among those who have less education and higher among those with primary education in Kenya and Tanzania and those with secondary education and beyond in Zambia. (Note, figures for education are for attendance, not attainment, so they don’t tell you that much. But MDG 2 is about ‘achieving universal primary education’, not about academic attainment.)
Receiving antenatal care at a health facility is part of the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) number 5, to improve maternal health. Therefore, it is not surprising that all 14 African countries I have looked at have a very high score for this goal, all ready for 2015. But the goal does not consider matters such as conditions in health facilities, skills of providers, facility practices, equipment, supplies, etc. So the percentage of women delivering in health facilities and the percentage of deliveries attended by a skilled health provider are far lower, being out of the MDG limelight.
For information on health facility conditions, equipment and supplies, there are Service Provision Assessments for each of the three countries, showing that there are many serious lapses. But questions about whether skilled providers are skilled, and of how skilled they are, are less often asked (particularly in relation to the MDGs). Another paper, entitled “Are skilled birth attendants really skilled? A measurement method, some disturbing results and a potential way forward“, addresses this issue.
Skill levels overall are not impressive and are low in some areas in the countries involved (Nicaragua, Benin, Ecuador, Jamaica and Rwanda). The researchers note that “knowledge of a procedure is no guarantee that it can be performed correctly”, but also that problems are not solely due to a lack of skills or training, that some are due to lack of equipment, supplies and other things.
The first article estimates that skilled birth attendance could substantially reduce maternal deaths “presuming that facilities meet standards of quality care.” Quite. But various sources of data show that health facilities often don’t meet standards of quality care. The possibility that health facilities may be the source of a considerable proportion of HIV infections in high prevalence countries must be considered urgently if healthcare transmitted HIV, and other diseases, are to be averted.
Reducing maternal deaths is a laudable goal, but it is nothing short of unethical to encourage women to attend health facilities where the conditions are likely to be unsafe. Right now, failing to achieve MDG 5 may even be preferable to achieving it. Of course deaths from hemorrhage, obstructed labor, puerperal sepsis and pre-eclampsia must be reduced, but not at the cost of increasing incidence of HIV, hepatitis and other bloodborne diseases.