Tsunami disaster – countries in crisis

Sri Lanka: After the tsunami, rising birth rate brings challenges



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© UNICEF/ HQ05-0228/Pietrasik
A woman carries her daughter in a camp for people displaced by the tsunami.

By Leanne Mitchell

TRINCOMALEE, Sri Lanka, December 2005 - Aruentathy, 30, sits at the door of her temporary house, nursing her one-day-old girl, both weary after the ordeal of birth. Her sister Vickneaswary, 28 and seven months pregnant, is by her side, ready to help if needed.

The sisters live in Ninakeney Camp, a couple of hours drive south of Trincomalee on the eastern coast of Sri Lanka. Both are married to fisherman. The two families lost a total of five children to the tsunami of 26 December 2004.   

New babies offer new hope, both women say.

“When the baby was born,” recounts Aruentathy, “my husband came in and he cried, because he was reminded of our three children who were lost in the tsunami. He said, ‘We lost our three girls and now we have been given this baby girl as a gift from God.’” Vickneaswary’s baby, due in a couple of months, is equally important for her and her husband.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Posing
UNICEF’s refurbishment of Trincomalee General Hospital’s neonatal ward included the provision of wide beds to comfortably accommodate mothers and babies.

Children wanted despite all

Dr. Sabaretnam Jeyakumar, Consultant Medical Officer at Trincomalee General Hospital, says women who lost children to the tsunami are becoming pregnant again to rebuild their families.  It is a trend that, given the circumstances, is perfectly natural, but it also places new risks on both mothers and babies.

“Many mothers who lost all their children are now giving birth,” says Dr. Jeyakumar. “Many people come to the hospital trying to reverse sterilization. We are also seeing many older mothers who are risking pregnancy to replace the children they lost.”

Dr. Jeyakumar says that families’ caring capacities are sometimes being overtaxed. “After the tsunami many cannot afford these growing families, nor are they strong enough psychologically to support them.”

But many are determined to have additional children regardless of challenges. “There are women who, despite the risk, want a child. They don’t have anything in the world, but they want a child,” says Dr. Jeyakumar.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Sri Lanka/2005/Posing
Consultant Medical Officer Dr. Sabaretnam Jayakumar outside the hospital’s delivery ward.

Basics are lacking

Trincomalee General Hospital is also facing its own challenges in coping with the number of new births. Not only are birth rates rising among tsunami-affected families, but also the Hospital is one of the few remaining maternity facilities in the area. Other nearby hospitals and health centres on the east coast of Sri Lanka were destroyed in the disaster.

As a result, nine months to the day after the tsunami struck, the hospital’s maternity ward recorded its busiest day on record - 26 births. But even on non-record days, the daily average of 10-15 births is proving difficult for hospital staff to cope with. The long, narrow ward where mothers and babies rest after childbirth is full to the brim.

Dr. Jeyakumar explains that the hospital has some sophisticated equipment, but it’s the basics that are currently lacking: “We have only six beds. We have to manage labour in corridors and sometime people give birth on the floor.”

 


 

 

Video

UNICEF correspondent Rob McBride reports on how parents in Sri Lanka who lost children to the tsunami are trying to re-build their families.

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Dan Thomas reports on UNICEF’s efforts over the last 12 months to help children affected by the tsunami.

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