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Improving antenatal care for mothers and newborns in Iraq

© UNICEF/HQ03-0019/Noorani
A baby being weighed on a UNICEF-supplied paediatric scale during a growth-monitoring session at the out-patient department of the Basra Maternity and Paediatric Hospital.

By Claire Hajaj

AMMAN, Jordan, 30 January 2007 – For Nadtha, 21, her last few months of pregnancy were an anxious time. With one toddler demanding attention and another baby on the way, Nadtha was worried about how she would cope with the demands of her growing family. She wanted to be reassured that the delivery would go smoothly and that her baby would be healthy.

Many young mothers share Nadtha’s fears. However, she is facing more than most mothers have to deal with. The current environment in Iraq has turned giving birth into an often dangerous experience for women. 

With hundreds of doctors and nurses having fled to safer areas, thousands of women are in turn finding it harder to access the antenatal care services that are critical to keeping themselves and their babies healthy.

“Most women know that they must go to the doctor during pregnancy to get good care and advice, particularly if it is their first baby,” said Nadtha. “But there are not enough doctors to care for all the pregnant women in my community.”

Hidden cost of violence

Iraq’s medical care used to be the envy of the Middle East. Before 1990, a woman’s chance of dying during pregnancy or delivery in Iraq was 117 per 100,000 live births. But due to years of war, economic deprivation and the current violence, the rate as of 2004 was 193 per 100,000.

“Many pregnant women are reluctant to travel to maternal and newborn health centres because they are afraid of being caught up in violence,” said Dr. Leila Fakhir Abu Ragheef, Assistant Professor at the College of Nursing, University of Baghdad. “Some doctors see the mothers for the first time only when she is admitted to the delivery room or when expectant mothers are brought to the hospital with serious complications.” 

Health care providers such as Dr. Leila are determined to take a stand for Iraq’s pregnant women – and UNICEF is there to help them.

© UNICEF/HQ03-0020/Noorani
A health worker counsels a mother about the best way to breastfeed her newborn.

Strengthening mother-child bonds

Together with the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Population Fund, UNICEF is rebuilding hundreds of maternal and newborn health centres across the country. In addition, they are delivering critical medical supplies – including paediatric IVs and vital drugs – to improve the odds of child survival.

A UNICEF-supported national programme is also fortifying household flour with folic acid and iron, essential nutrients that increase the prospects of a healthy, safe pregnancy. 

This week, UNICEF and WHO launched a training campaign to improve the abilities of hundreds of doctors, nurses and midwives throughout the country to provide a higher quality of care to Iraq’s newborn babies.

“Newborn care is the starting point for the strong human bonding between the mother and the baby,” said Dr. Leila. “Simple things like warmth, cleanliness, breastfeeding and love can significantly help to reduce the number of Iraqi children who die each year.”

Antenatal care at the forefront

UNICEF Chief of Health, Dr. Alexander Malyavin, said that improving care for Iraq’s mothers and newborns must remain a national priority, even under the current conditions.

“Despite what we hear and see on the news, most pregnant women in Iraq still want to come to health centres for antenatal care,” he said. “They are defying the circumstances to get the best possible care for their babies. We must support them and the dedicated doctors and nurses who are still determined to help them.”

For mothers like Nadtha, these services are a lifeline.  “During my check-ups, the doctors and nurses monitored my baby’s growth, gave me tonics and taught me about breastfeeding and immunization,” she said. “I wish more mothers could have this kind of care, so that more babies can be born healthy in Iraq.”



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