This month The Lancet is publishing a series of articles and commentaries about the unspeakable silence around the problem of stillbirths. Luc de Bernis and co-authors state the political side of the equation: “Stillbirths have had even less political attention than other important public health issues, such as HIV or malaria, even though the burden is greater and solutions exist that would benefit women and children.” By their estimate in, “sub-Saharan Africa … malaria in pregnancy is estimated to be associated with about 20% of stillbirths.”
A summary of the series makes it clear that, “Most result from preventable conditions such as maternal infections (notably syphilis and malaria), non-communicable diseases, and obstetric complications.” The key role of malaria is not surprising since “75% (of stillbirths occur) in sub-Saharan Africa and south Asia” where malaria is endemic.
As part of the Lancet Series Joy Lawn and colleagues explain that, “Many disorders associated with stillbirths are potentially modifiable and often coexist, such as maternal infections (population attributable fraction: malaria 8·0% and syphilis 7·7%).” Of course action against malaria takes recognition of the problem. In a commentary as part of the Lancet series Juliet Kiguli et al. present a case study of a woman who reported several bouts of malaria prior to her stillbirth, but they lamented that a greater understanding of social and cultural factors is needed because in many communities people attribute stillbirths to spirits and super-natural forces and may fail to see a simple solution like preventing malaria in pregnancy.
Unfortunately methods to prevent malaria in pregnancy through intermittent preventive treatment and insecticide treated nets lag far behind targets. The Global Call to Action to defeat malaria in pregnancy reported that …
- While IPTp increased from <5 % (2003) >20 % (2010) average coverage rates have stagnated between 22 % and 24 %, which is very much lower than global targets o 80 % by 2010, and 100 % (universal coverage) by 2015
- ITN coverage is comparatively better that IPTp but is still unacceptably low at 38 % overall
Women do attend antenatal care clinics where these preventive services are offered, but health systems failures such as poor commodity planning lead to stockouts. Community delivery of MIP services helps, but only if health staff accept community partnership and make commodities available. Until we can break the silence on stillbirths and the lack of action of malaria in pregnancy prevention, unborn children and their mothers will continue to suffer.