Ebola Aftermath: Maternal Deaths Skyrocket as Women Fear Giving Birth in Hospitals

AP Photo/Sunday Alamba
AP Photo/Sunday Alamba

While Sierra Leone patiently moves towards concluding a 42-day period in which it can be declared Ebola-free, a study shows that deaths continue to skyrocket in the nation not due to Ebola, but of the fear of hospitals left in its aftermath.

A study by the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine finds that pregnant women in Sierra Leone are increasingly opting to give birth at home, citing fears that any contact with a hospital will result in them or their baby contracting Ebola. Sierra Leone experienced a one-third increase in the number of deaths of women during or shortly after childbirth between May 2014 and April 2015, the report states. Deaths of infants increased by one-fourth. The Ebola outbreak began in neighboring Guinea in February 2014.

Directly related to this statistic is the decline in women choosing to consult medical professionals while pregnant. Doctors reported an 11% decrease in the number of women going to health centers to give birth. The report also notes a 20% decrease in those seeking obstetrics professionals for care during their pregnancies, and even a similar decrease in those visiting an OB/GYN after their births, when the child would be presumed safe from the threats looming in a health facility.

Sierra Leone has continued for decades to suffer one of the world’s highest infant mortality rates. Despite this, however, there were indications before the virus struck that the situation was improving. As Sierra Leone’s Awareness Times reports, before the virus struck, 60% of births occurred alongside a “skilled birth provider” and the infant morality rate had dropped from 127/1000 live births to 92/1000 live births. The fear of Ebola appears to be challenging this trend.

Those interviewed for the study told researchers that they feared “contracting EVD [Ebola] or being told they had it,” as well as believing that “health care workers were part of an EVD conspiracy.” At its peak, the Ebola outbreak prompted a number of prominent outlets to give credence to Ebola conspiracies. In perhaps the most prominent example, the Liberian Observer, a major newspaper in that nation, published a column alleging that both Ebola and the AIDS virus were created in American laboratories and distributed through false “vaccines” provided by charity organizations.

Others simply preferred traditional herbalists–local witch doctors who have been cultural staples in west African health care for centuries, but often lack medical training or resources to prescribe proper remedies. The death of one such herbalist who claimed to have the ability to cure Ebola–and died of Ebola herself–triggered hundreds of deaths at the hands of the virus in one community in Sierra Leone last year.

Sierra Leone’s government continues to focus on rebuilding its medical infrastructure, announcing the use of donations to buy ambulances and other health equipment to give medical professionals the proper tools with which to provide for patients. But perhaps the most shocking finding in the study is that Sierra Leone’s health facilities have largely recovered from the Ebola outbreak. Had a larger number of women sought out medical care, these numbers would not appear so dire, the researchers conclude. Seven out of nine critical areas of maternity care were still accessible during the study period, they found.