During a donor visit to Peru in the year 2000, a maternal health supporter and friend saw that rural women in Peru were suffering and dying because they lacked access to safe maternal health services during the critical hours of childbirth. This young donor had recently had her children, so she decided to reward the unsung heroes who made extraordinary efforts to save the lives of women during childbirth. It would be the “Oscar” of maternal health and survival.
The Sarah Faith Award was created to promote and reward the extraordinary efforts made by health providers and communities to save the lives of mothers and their children. For ten years, this award provided funding and technical assistance to the health teams and communities that had demonstrated teamwork and solidarity. Most cases were heroic efforts – transporting a mother to a rural health facility on the shoulders of four or five men using a stretcher made of wood and blankets (or in a boat along the Amazon River) or a doctor/nurse giving his or her own blood for a much-needed transfusion. The award honored deserving teams with US$25,000 to improve their health facilities or their community services. This award was an extraordinary tool to improve morale among health providers and health promoters. Each winning team received a beautiful statue that they prominently displayed in their facility.
Yet, it is worthwhile to observe that an important selection criterion for the Sarah Faith Award is how applicants improved access to maternal health services. So what happens to women who do not have access to such heroes as the ones the Sarah Faith prize rewards? I do believe this is where supplies come into play, carrying out a crucial, lifesaving role. How many lives could be saved if pregnant women had free access to misoprostol in order to prevent postpartum hemorrhage during their home delivery, or if the nurse in the health facility could administer magnesium sulfate to women with pre-eclampsia to control their blood pressure? How many lives could be saved if oxytocin supplies were adequately refrigerated?
Arguably, services — with their immediate human element — make for better story-telling a lot of the time. And good storytelling is a mainstay of the marketing and publicity that surround award mechanisms. And by comparison, supplies often carry rather sterile connotations of warehouses, supply chains, and transportation.
Working at the Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition, I am often struck by the challenge of even finding a photo that adequately tells the supplies story. And yes, there is a supplies story however, there is no “supplies award”. There is very little we do in promoting morale and engagement among those that work to make supplies available, accessible and affordable within a framework of quality and equity!
As far as maternal health supplies go, it is easy for groups to forget the role of the three key life-saving commodities and therefore fail to prioritize their presence in health facilities 100% of the time. Much of the assistance provided through the Sarah Faith Award was directed to the direct provision of these commodities: a good fridge for the oxytocin (and vaccines of course) and a training package to update providers on the use, dosage and storage of these supplies.
The Family Planning Community has this saying “no product no program”. It is time to start using a similar phrase that includes maternal health supplies as part of a holistic approach to safe motherhood.
This post is part of the blog series “Increasing access to maternal and reproductive health supplies: Leveraging lessons learned in preventing maternal mortality,” hosted by the Maternal Health Task Force, Reproductive Health Supplies Coalition/Maternal Health Supplies Caucus, Family Care International and the USAID-Accelovate program at Jhpiego which discusses the importance and methods of reaching women with lifesaving reproductive and maternal health supplies in the context of the proposed new global target of fewer than 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 births by 2030. To contribute a post, contact Katie Millar.