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Maternal Health Challenges in Kenya: What New Research Evidence Shows

GHI simulcasts a workshop in Nairobi and Washington, DC to discuss Kenya's maternal health challenges and identify solutions with policymakers, health workers, media, and donors.

Date & Time

Jul. 12, 2011
9:30am – 11:30am ET


6th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center


“Although there have been improvements in the recent past, the status of maternal health care has not met the required international standards,” said Professor at the University of Nairobi Geoffrey Mumia Osaaji during a live video-conference from Nairobi on July 12. As part of the 2011 Maternal Health Dialogue Series the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Global Health Initiative is partnering with the African Population and Health Research Center to convene a series of technical meetings on improving maternal health in Kenya. The 20 Kenyan experts attending the workshop in Nairobi also shared their strategies and action points with a live audience in Washington, DC during a video conference discussion.

Osaaji was joined by panelists Laurence Ikamari, director of Population Studies and Research Institute (PSRI), and Catherine Kyobutungi, director of Health Systems and Challenges at the African Population and Research Center to discuss new maternal health research in Kenya.  Panelists also shared recommendations for moving the maternal health agenda forward that came out of discussions during the two-day, in-country workshop with Kenyan policymakers, community health workers, program managers, media, and donors.  Following the panelists’ presentations, Dr. Nahed Mattta, senior maternal and newborn health advisor at U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and John Townsend, vice-president of reproductive health program for Population Council provided reflecting remarks from the Woodrow Wilson Center during the live webcast. 

Maternal Health Challenges in Rural Kenya

“Maternal mortality in rural Kenya is still very high,” said Ikamari. "Rural women in Kenya need to have increased access to maternal health services.” Ikamari discussed a number of factors that contribute to high rates of maternal mortality in rural Kenya, including lack of access to quality care and skilled birth attendants, the high burden of HIV/AIDS, and an unmet need for family planning. 

Though nearly 90 percent of women in rural Kenya seek antenatal care, according to the UNFPA, many wait until the second or third trimester, limiting the benefits. Additionally, a majority of women in rural Kenya give birth outside of health facilities, oftentimes without the care of a skilled birth attendant, said Ikamari.  In a recent survey, many rural women indicated that transportation to often distant health facilities prevented them from seeking adequate maternal health care, he added. 

Additionally, “the burden of HIV is really felt in rural Kenya,” said Ikamari. Survey results show that HIV/AIDS

 prevalence is about seven percent in rural Kenya and because the majority of the Kenyan population lives in rural areas, this adds yet another layer of complications.

“Family planning saves lives,” said Ikamari, stressing the importance of contraception on maternal health outcomes.  Only 35 to 40 percent of currently married Kenyan women use family planning, according to the last demographic and health surveys, and unmet need remains particularly high in rural areas. Promoting institutional delivery systems, improving antenatal and postnatal care, and finding other ways to increase access to family planning can help to improve maternal health outcomes and reduce preventable deaths in rural Kenya, concluded Ikamari.

Comparison of Urban and Rural Areas

“The interventions to address maternal health are well known: family planning, increased access to safe abortion services, skilled health workers, health facilities that are accessible, as well as referral systems that work,” said Kyobutungi.  “Yet urban averages [of maternal mortality] are becoming either close or worse than rural averages.”

“As much as we appreciate the rural-urban divide that exists for most health indicators, the urban-urban divide (the fact that there are huge intra-urban differences) needs attention”

“Teenage pregnancy is a failure of family planning,” said Kyobutungi. Studies indicate that there are three times more teenagers that are pregnant among the urban poor, compared to the urban rich.

As in rural Kenya, access to quality health facilities and care is also limited in cities.  “Health facilities are few and far between and the referral systems are weak,” said Kyobutungi, and “when you remove Nairobi from the numerator, the number of skilled physicians per population is in the decimals.”

Moving forward, there is a need to promote effective integration and improvement of health worker training and monitoring but also development of performance-based incentives to ensure successful programs are properly funded.  “It’s not all gloom and doom in urban areas,” concluded Kyobutungi. 

Innovative Ideas for Better Results

“By year 2025 there will be 25 percent more people [in Kenya],” said Townsend.  “What that means is, when we are planning…we have to think about the scale of solutions that we are proposing in 2025 and 2050.” Therefore, it is essential to acquire new models of data and evidence to better predict future population growth and maternal needs, he suggested.

In addition to expanding services to meet the needs of a growing population, the panelists in Washington emphasized the need to support integration at all levels. Trends are moving in the right direction: Within the Obama administration’s Global Health Initiative, “there is a strong push and recommendation for integration among the health sectors,” said Matta.

But integration is not a magic bullet to improve maternal health, warned the panelists.  “Integration is a terrific issue, but when the health sectors are weak, putting more burden on a local community health worker does not usually make sense; we have to think about smart integration,” said Townsend.

Focusing on Kenya’s health sector from all aspects, both at the private and public level, and improving family planning, institutional delivery care, as well as antennal care will help Kenya overcome its maternal health barriers. Additionally, thinking of ways to utilize new models of data and integrating the various sectors will yield substantial benefits, concluded Matta and Townsend.

Following the technical meeting, a public dialogue was held on July 13 in Nairobi to share the recommendations and knowledge gaps identified with members of Kenya’s Parliament, including Hon. Sofia Abdi, parliamentary health committee member; Hon. Ekwee Ethuro, chair of the parliamentary network for population and development; and Hon. Jackson Kiptanui.  They joined a group of more than 50 maternal health experts, program managers, members of the media, and donors – such as the UK Department for International Development (DFID) – to identify real solutions and action points for improving maternal health in Kenya.

The formal report from the in-country technical meeting will be available in the near future.

Drafted by Roza Essaw

Calyn Ostrowski, Program Associate, Global Health Initiative 202-691-4341

Sources: Kenya National Bureau of Statistics, UNFPA, Demographic and Health Surveys   


Hosted By

Maternal Health Initiative

Life and health are the most basic human rights, yet disparities between and within countries continue to grow. No single solution or institution can address the variety of health concerns the world faces. By leveraging, building on, and coordinating the Wilson Center’s strong regional and cross-cutting programming, the Maternal Health Initiative (MHI) promotes dialogue and understanding among practitioners, scholars, community leaders, and policymakers.  Read more

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more

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