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500,000 Pregnant Women at Risk in Pakistan Floods

Aprille Muscara

UNITED NATIONS, Sep 1 2010 (IPS) - Aid groups and U.N. agencies are raising the alarm over the vulnerability of pregnant women and babies in flood ravaged Pakistan.

Over the past month the unprecedented monsoon-induced floods have affected nearly 18 million people – 1,600 lives have already been lost, according to U.N. estimates.

“We know that mothers are giving birth in flimsy or crowded shelters, steps away from stagnant water and debris,” said Sonia Kush, director of emergency preparedness and response at Save the Children. “And we know the dangers for newborns are extreme – the first hours and days of a child’s life in the developing world are the riskiest, even without the added complications posed by a disaster of this scope. Displacement, increased impoverishment, crowded living conditions, disease and infection are further imperilling the lives of mothers and their newborn babies in Pakistan.”

Save the Children says that 100,000 women are due to give birth in the next month and according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), approximately 500,000 flood-affected pregnant women are currently in their second or third trimesters. Nearly 500,000 newborns are expected to be born in the coming half year.

“We must ensure the health and safety of all these women and their babies,” U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Pakistan Martin Mogwanja said. “This disaster has already affected almost 18 million people. We don’t want it to also affect half a million babies who are not born yet.”

Paul Garwood, communications officer for WHO’s Health Action in Crises program, told IPS that the U.N. Population Fund (UNFPA) has been particularly active in providing reproductive health care in the relief efforts thus far. The U.N. humanitarian office says that UNFPA has assisted in the safe delivery of an estimated 5,600 babies since the floods began and have helped to establish 36 mobile and fixed health clinics that are equipped to handle childbirth and emergency obstetric care.

“WHO is working with other U.N. agencies, government and NGOs to get health facilities operational again as rapidly as possible and also support the sending of mobile teams into affected communities to deliver primary health care and reproductive health services,” Garwood told IPS.

Khush said that Save the Children’s fixed and mobile clinics in Pakistan see hundreds of flood-affected people seeking health care daily – including pregnant women, new mothers and children.

In addition to the establishment and restoration of health service centres, another key means to help mothers deliver their babies safely, Garwood told IPS, is “having health workers – often preferably females depending on the social settings – to support and monitor pregnant women leading up to and during their pregnancy.”

But UNFPA says that it has encountered challenges in recruiting women health workers, especially female gynaecologists, in the flood-affected areas. And according to the latest U.N. figures, only twenty percent of the six million dollars required for reproductive health care services has been funded thus far. An additional 4.8 million dollars is needed.

Anthony Lake, Executive Director of the U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), was in Pakistan on Monday and Tuesday to visit flood-affected areas.

“We must step up our humanitarian operations to stave off a potential second wave of disease and misery for millions of families, especially the most vulnerable, women and children,” Lake said.

Meanwhile, the U.N. says it still needs forty helicopters to aid in the relief efforts. The floods have drowned bridges and roads, leaving 800,000 people stranded in the western and southern parts of the country, according to the U.N.’s humanitarian office. Helicopters remain the only way to administer aid in certain areas.

The U.N.’s latest figures say that 600,000 square kilometres – an area larger than England – is underwater, over 1.2 million homes have been wiped out, 4.8 million people are still without shelter and 4.3 million hectares of crops have been destroyed, threatening the country’s food security.

An estimated 2.4 million children younger than five-years-old still need food aid, raising concerns about malnutrition, while 3.5 million children are threatened by the onset of water-borne diseases, Save the Children says.

“This is a child survival crisis,” said Khush. “Dengue, malaria, diarrhoea and other infections are sickening hundreds of thousands of people. All of these diseases are treatable but can be fatal – especially to children – if not addressed.”

And as the floods continue, the number of people who need assistance has risen to eight million since the U.N. launched an appeal for 460 million dollars to fund its emergency response nearly three weeks ago. So far, over seventy percent of this amount has been funded, but officials say the initial appeal was underestimated as needs continue to rise. The appeal is expected to be revised in mid-September.

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