Tackling Noncommunicable Diseases and Maternal Mortality: A Conversation With Katja Iversen

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By: Sarah Hodin, Project Coordinator II, Women and Health Initiative, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

On 2 November 2017, Katja Iversen joined the Maternal Health Task Force (MHTF) for a panel discussion about noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) and maternal health. Later, she sat down with the MHTF’s Sarah Hodin to talk more about the issues she raised during the event.

SH: Please start by introducing yourself and what you do.

KI: I am the President/CEO of Women Deliver, a global advocacy organization that focuses on gender equality and the health, rights and wellbeing of girls and women. As the name suggests, our background is in maternal health, but we look at the whole girl and the whole woman. Our core belief is that when you invest in girls and women, there is a ripple effect and everybody wins.

SH: You mentioned that Women Deliver takes a holistic approach to improving the lives of girls and women around the world. Could you talk a bit about the role of maternal health in these efforts?

KI: Making every pregnancy wanted and every childbirth safe is absolutely essential. A health system that is ready to deliver for women when women are ready to deliver their babies is a strong health system. Unfortunately, we see that one of the leading causes of death among adolescent girls globally is childbirth- or pregnancy-related complications, including unsafe abortion. We see how maternal deaths shatter communities. When women die in childbirth, it’s not just an individual loss—it’s a loss for families, communities and societies at large.

I also think that involving young people in the processes, policies and programs that affect their lives is key if we want to create sustainable change. If we’re serious about ending preventable maternal mortality among adolescent girls, we need to work with them.

SH: You talked earlier today about the importance of encouraging collaboration among NCD and maternal health experts. What do you see as the greatest barriers?

KI: We need to bridge the gap between the NCD and maternal and newborn health communities, as well as other health areas. We know that when we work together, our efforts become more sustainable and impactful. Diabetes in pregnancy is a great example of a natural bridge-builder. This is a core issue in both the NCD and maternal health communities. One in seven pregnant women globally experiences gestational diabetes, and the effects can be devastating for them and their babies in both the short- and long-term.

This is about putting the girl or woman at the center. In some ways, it doesn’t matter whether a women dies from postpartum hemorrhage or cancer—the consequences for the woman, her family and her community are dire.

SH: Speaking of maternal mortality, as you know, the targets under the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are to reduce the global maternal mortality ratio (MMR) to fewer than 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births and for countries to reduce their MMRs by at least two-thirds from their 2010 baseline by 2030. What do you think needs to happen to meet those targets?

KI: If we want to achieve the maternal mortality targets under the SDGs, we need to have an integrated approach. In addition to addressing the leading causes of maternal deaths, we need to look at nutrition, NCDs, education, women’s status in society, clean water access and other issues that impact maternal health. The SDGs are not meant to be treated as a buffet—all of the goals are intertwined and need to be tackled together. Implementing integrated programs can be difficult, but that’s the way we will be most effective.

Read an editorial by Katja Iversen on the MHTF blog titled, “Diabetes in Pregnancy: A Neglected Cause of Maternal Mortality.”

Watch the video from the panel discussion moderated by Katja Iversen about NCDs and maternal health.

Learn about the 2019 Women Deliver conference.