An estimated 4.3 million lives are lost every year because of the world’s shortage of 900,000 midwives, according to a new report.
The world is currently operating with two-thirds of the number of midwives needed to make giving birth safer, according to the report from the World Health Organisation and UNFPA.
If fully resourced, 67 per cent of maternal deaths, 64 per cent of newborn deaths and 65 per cent of stillbirths could be prevented, the organisations suggest.
Globally, there are approximately 810 maternal deaths every day, one stillbirth every 16 seconds and 2.4 million newborn deaths each year. One in five women give birth without assistance from a skilled health provider.
Coronavirus has had a “devastating” effect on the continued shortage, the report said, with the health needs of women and newborns overshadowed and midwives deployed to other services.
Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, said: “Midwives play a vital role in reducing the risks of childbirth for women all over the world, but many have themselves been exposed to risk during the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We must learn the lessons the pandemic is teaching us, by implementing policies and making investments that deliver better support and protection for midwives and other health workers.”
The report suggests that gender inequality is a driver in the shortage of midwives, saying that the continued under-resourcing of the midwifery workforce is a symptom of health systems not prioritising the sexual and reproductive health needs of women and girls, adding that it is also about "not recognising the role of midwives – most of whom are women – to meet these demands."
The report warns that progress has been too slow since alarm bells were raised in 2014’s State of the World’s Midwifery report. At the current rate, the situation will have only improved marginally by 2030.
The report calls for greater investment in education and training, midwife-led service delivery, and for governments to prioritise funding and support for midwifery.
Dr Franka Cadee, president of the International Confederation of Midwives, said: “As autonomous, primary care providers, midwives are continually overlooked and ignored. It's time for governments to acknowledge the evidence surrounding the life-promoting, life-saving impact of midwife-led care.”
While giving birth without a midwife or other skilled care provider present is considerably more common in middle and lower-income countries, midwife shortages have also affected people here in the UK, particularly during the pandemic.
Grace Shelley, who gave birth to her daughter Tabby during the UK’s first lockdown, faced multiple challenges during her pregnancy, childbirth and post-partum.
In her fourth trimester, as the country was placed under strict coronavirus restrictions, Ms Shelley was unable to attend face-to-face appointments or weigh-in clinics. She struggled with her recovery post-birth, but didn't get access to support.
Even in the hospital, Ms Shelley said she felt abandoned.
"I had no support for getting out of bed, learning to feed Tabby, nobody to talk to as a new mum during the pandemic. I was in a lot of pain, I pressed the call button and it would take 45 minutes for anyone to arrive,” she said.
In December 2020, the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) said England had a shortage of 3,000 midwives. A RCM survey found eight out of 10 midwives did not believe their NHS Trust or Board had enough staff to operate a safe service. Forty-two per cent reported that shifts were understaffed.
In January, The Telegraph reported that 19 per cent of women in the UK could not get help when it was needed during labour and birth.
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