Lifesaving Mother and Child Care in the Ethiopian Mountains

Aroressa, located in southern Ethiopia’s Sidama zone, is a beautiful, verdant, and mountainous area dotted with small coffee plantations that are irrigated by natural waterfalls and meandering streams. In the valleys, cattle graze and children play outside the onion-shaped huts typical of the area.

But Aroressa’s beauty obscures the very serious medical issues with which its population must contend. Health centers are scarce, as are qualified medical personnel. Maternal and child mortality rates are high. The mountainous terrain makes it difficult for pregnant women to trek to their nearest health center, which could be 20 kilometers [12 miles] away, if not further. Many lives have been lost on these treacherous journeys.

Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) runs two “waiting houses” for expectant mothers in a bid to reduce maternal and child mortality rates. These houses, Chire and Mejo, are designed to allow women from remote villages who experience complications during their pregnancy to live near caregivers and to receive regular medical attention. Instead of trying to make the long trek to a medical facility after labor has already begun, or when it’s already too late to get the attention they need, the women in the waiting houses are examined by MSF’s medical staff and remain under regular observation in case urgent treatment is needed.

“I came to the waiting house because I had pains and bleeding during my pregnancy and knew that MSF is offering help to expectant women,” says Birtu Kawato, a 25- year-old woman from Baya Faficho Kebele division who is staying at MSF's Mejo waiting house. Each waiting house has a capacity of 20 beds.Uncomplicated births are assisted by an MSF midwife in the health centers. Women with complications are referred to nearby hospitals. MSF also cooperates with the Ethiopian Ministry of Health to provide antenatal and postnatal services, family planning, and medical and psychological assistance to victims of sexual violence.

Two-hundred fifty-one women have successfully delivered in Mejo since the waiting house's establishment in the final quarter of 2012. As word continues to spread, that number could rise, even if the journey though the surrounding hills to reach the waiting houses remains challenging. “Most of these women trek for as long as eight hours from their villages to the waiting houses just because they know MSF is here and they will get quality medical care,” says MSF nurse-midwife Eva Dominguez.