Australian doctor's initiative reduces PNG maternal deaths by 78 per cent

An Australian doctor’s program handing out 'baby bundles' to expectant mothers in a Papua New Guinean province has reduced its maternal death rate by 78 per cent, new research shows.

A program started by Australian doctor Barry Kirby in Papua New Guinea's Milne Bay province has dramatically reduced its maternal death rate, new research shows.

In 2010, Dr Kirby carried out research into PNG’s maternal mortality rates, travelling by boat to remote islands in PNG and surveying locals to better understand the cause of maternal deaths.

Not long after he came up with the idea of the “Baby Bundles.”

“We went and bought a big baby dish and we filled it up with baby nappies and nappy for mother, pants, bed sheets, toilet paper, oil and powder for the baby, singlet’s and pants for the baby,” he told SBS. “We’ve put out 2,500 of these bundles.”

The bundles cost about $A28 each and include the $A5 equivalent cost of a health centre delivery.

New research - carried out by the Hands of Rescue Foundation and published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology - found the program was making an huge impact.

At the ten health centres in Milne Bay province reported an increase in supervised deliveries from 845 a year in 2012 to 1,449 in 2014. 

The findings stated that "access to supervised birth is well recognised as a key component of any strategy aimed at improving outcomes, including mortality, for women and babies in developing countries."

"We are so happy this is working. We listened to what mothers were saying to us and we responded, although at times it seemed like a crazy idea," he said. "Finally, finally our maternal death rate is coming down, at least in our backyard, and we should all feel happy about that."

Send Hope Not Flowers is a charity organisation supporting Dr Kirby's work in Papua New Guinea. 

SHNF board member and obstetrician, Professor Steve Robson said the findings were significant.

"This study shows how a relatively cheap and simple idea can translate to outstanding survival rates for pregnant women," Professor Robson said.

"I think most Australian donors would be heartened to learn that their donations have translated to such an outstanding and verifiable result."

In Australia it’s estimated around four or five in 100,000 women die during in childbirth but in PNG, the number is about 500-700 per 100,000 live births.

One of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals is to reduce maternal mortality. So far progress has been slow but Dr Kirby is convinced his team can change this. 

"We can reduce maternal deaths by better than what the millennium goals hope that we could ... but it does take a determined effort to address all the problems," Dr Kirby said.

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