Preventing young mothers from dying—and the ripple effects when they do

Spring/Summer 2012 ]

When a mother dies during pregnancy or childbirth in sub-Saharan Africa, the impact on the child or children left behind—and on the larger family—can be devastating. Studies suggest that children’s risk of dying before age 10 jumps by more than 60 percent after their mother dies.

A new $2 million grant from the John & Katie Hansen Family Foundation will enable Harvard School of Public Health researchers to more accurately quantify the extent of the problem, tease out the primary reasons that maternal deaths wreak such havoc on those left behind, and develop practical solutions. The effort is unique because no one has ever measured the full impact that mothers’ deaths have in African societies.

According to the latest estimates, roughly 273,500 women worldwide died from complications of pregnancy or childbirth in 2011, mostly in poor countries. “Our hope is that by quantifying the cost to the economy and to society of allowing these women to die, more resources will be applied to really make a difference in saving mothers’ lives,” says Katie Vogelheim, founder of the Hansen Foundation and a member of the HSPH Board of Dean’s Advisors.

Under the new Hansen Program on Maternal and Child Health, HSPH’s Jennifer Leaning, François-Xavier Bagnoud Professor of the Practice of Health and Human Rights and director of Harvard’s FXB Center for Health and Human Rights, and Ana Langer, professor of the practice of public health and director of the School’s Women and Health Initiative founded by Dean Julio Frenk in 2010, are working on a two-pronged effort focused on Ethiopia and Tanzania—two countries where HSPH has existing connections and where the governments are concerned with reducing maternal mortality.

Leaning and her FXB Center colleagues—whose work focuses on protecting and promoting the rights and well-being of children, adolescents, and youth worldwide—will analyze large databases to establish the impact of maternal deaths on children’s health and survival. They will also conduct in-depth qualitative studies to delineate the particular hardships children experience when their mothers die in childbirth, as well as other dire effects on families left behind. “The idea is to create a wider sense of consciousness about the tragic ripple effects of a mother’s death,” Leaning says. “We hope this effort will create more energy behind national and international steps at eradicating maternal mortality.”

Langer and her colleagues, building on Leaning’s analysis, will develop “concrete interventions that can be implemented and evaluated in Tanzania and Ethiopia to mitigate the impact of a mother’s death on the survival of her children,” Langer says. Her group will also train policymakers and program managers in the two countries to implement effective maternal and child health initiatives, and will work toward improving the quality of maternal health care at the community level.

The Hansen gift is key to ensuring that this research moves forward, say Leaning and Langer. In the long term, they hope this new effort will help keep women’s health and maternal mortality at the forefront of the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals, set in 2000 and due to be updated in 2015.