Traditional Birth Attendants (TBAs); A lethal substitute for expectant mothers amid the COVID-19 pandemic

By Edith Sifuna


Sophia (not real name) could not easily access transport to the nearby health centre for maternal services. She therefore resorted to seeking the services of a traditional birth attendant (TBA) in a neighbouring village. She could not trek the long distance to deliver her child since she had gone into labour late in the night while she was home alone. An elderly TBA was her only option to deliver the baby. Unfortunately, Sophia suffered from obstructed labour and by the time she accessed a boda boda to get to the health care facility, she had lost her baby and had passed out. The midwife on duty could only give her first aid as they waited for an ambulance from the nearby private hospital to take her for further treatment.
With the global outbreak of COVID-19, Uganda took steps to curb the spread of the virus. Some of these steps included the Presidential directives that put restrictions on movement. These restrictions included a ban on public and private transport, except for essential services. Sophia is one of the many expectant women in Uganda who have been reported to resort to TBAs to give birth from villages due to these restrictions. Women have lost their lives while giving birth, lost their babies and or left the labour ward with complications and other psycho-social effects. COVID-19 like many other pandemics attacked Uganda unprepared more so because of the need to strike a balance between control of the pandemic and provision of essential health services where maternal and child health have been at the peak.
Uganda’s maternal mortality ratio stands at 336 deaths per 100,000 live births according to the Uganda Demographic and Health Survey 2016, with an average of 16 women dying daily while giving birth due to preventable causes. This figure is less likely to reduce to the projected indicators in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Even if the State worked hard to achieve the set indicators, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic already show a failure to achieve them. As part of ensuring that this pandemic is suppressed, the President of the Republic of Uganda working with the COVID-19 task force in the Ministry of Health provided directives to the country that were welcomed at the time. The country was in fear and everyone thought that these were indeed great directives. Reality, however, set in when expectant mothers continued to die and others delivered by the roadside or at the entrance of facilities due to movement restrictions.
The restriction on movement affected both women due for delivery and those due for antenatal care (ANC) visits. The World Health Organisation Guidelines (WHO), set at least eight antenatal care visits from the initial four as a measure for monitoring the well being of the expectant mother and the unborn
baby. These are unfortunately not possible for most expectant women due to the COVID-19 restrictions.
Many expectant women have instead been reported to have faced police brutalities while trying to access the health facilities. For example a video recording circulated on May 8th, 2020 showing a Local Defence Unit (LDU) officer shooting a boda boda rider and an expectant woman who were on their way to the hospital in Masaka. Both were reported dead. This happened despite the President relaxing restrictions on the movement of pregnant women on boda bodas.
Women have also failed to access necessary health care due to the economic breakdown brought about by COVID. Many have lost jobs and cannot earn a living. Additionally, movement restrictions especially in regard to public transport have caused a hike in transport fares, which many find too high to enable them access services. The current curfew which stops movement at 7pm has not made things easier.
These conditions, among others, have left expectant women with few options. The TBAs became the silent saviours of women’s lives. These were willing and ready to accord the much needed timely support for the expectant mothers in their communities for a number of reasons. First, they live within the communities and are therefore not affected by the movement restrictions. Secondly, the support and care TBAs accord women while they are in labour is sometimes not equivalent to the one provided in health facilities because the numbers attended to at a time is smaller.
It should be noted that in 2010, the Government of Uganda outlawed TBAs. They were banned from conducting deliveries as they lack formal training to handle emergency cases such as C-Sections and haemorrhage. Haemorrhage contributes to 46 per cent of maternal mortality among women according to the 2018/2018 Maternal Perinatal Death Survey Report (MPDSR). Despite the ban, the traditional birth attendants are still very active, providing maternity care during and after pregnancy, especially in rural communities. Expectant mothers’ preference to traditional birth attendants’ services has risen even higher during the COVID-19 period. Beyond proximity, the current socio-economic and mobility challenges have seen women run to TBAs even more. Unfortunately, the delivery places and services are of very poor quality and usually take place under unhygienic conditions with no referral systems.
Most TBAs in villages are old and have no training to offer timely technical assistance to expectant mothers but because they command a lot of respect, most people respect them and have resorted to their services.
The outbreak of the pandemic saw the designation of some facilities to handle COVID-19 cases. This meant that attention to general sexual and reproductive health and rights services including maternal health services was minimised. Managing COVID-19 remains Uganda’s priority. Furthermore, there are myths and misconceptions about the behaviour of healthcare providers as being harsh and rude, although they have been found to be this way, especially towards expectant mothers. On the other hand, TBAs are perceived as approachable, friendly and are known to deal well with financially constrained mothers as they sometimes go to the extent of giving them tea and food in addition to some herbal concoctions. These factors therefore make TBAs more attractive to expectant women in the communities. However, the services of TBAs have been known to increase maternal mortality, mother to child transmission of HIV/AIDS (MTCT) and postpartum haemorrhage. These indicators are expected to worsen if mothers continue giving birth with the assistance of TBAs who are not equipped to handle such emergencies and cannot easily refer the women to health facilities where they can be skillfully helped.
The presidential directives were put in place to protect Ugandans from COVID-19 and curb its spread in communities. However, the country has registered more maternal deaths than COVID-19 ones, which still stand at zero, due to the inability to access transport to health facilities. As CEHURD, we therefore recommend that the Ministry of Health strengthens the Public- Private Partnership (PPP) in this era to extend quality, accessible and affordable health services to all places in the country but more so to rural communities.
This can be done through working with different civil society organisations and other private actors to provide services and information to the masses. These collaborations are also an avenue to advocate for better service delivery and accountability. They also contribute to strengthening the local community structures such as Village Health Teams (VHTs), Health Unit Management Committees (HUMCs), and Community Health Advocates (CHAs).
VHTs if extensively trained and given the skills training, can take record of all expectant mothers in their constituencies and constantly monitor them till delivery time. They can further support them to access health facilities for ANC and child delivery, not forgetting social distancing and personal protection with protective gear, constant hand washing and use of alcohol-based sanitisers. They can also offer health education to their constituencies.
HUMCs can be further strengthened to continuously update the communities about the available services at facilities and encourage them to go for health care. They can further monitor the activities of the health workers and quality of services. However, health workers should be equipped with the adequate personal protective gear such as emergency drugs, gloves, masks and disinfectants, among others as they are also working in fear of their safety while dealing with different categories of people from diverse locations.
Lastly, Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) has trained a team of Community Health Advocates (CHAs) who are advocating for the realisation of right to health within communities. They also report cases such as Sophia’s. CHAs can sensitise communities about their rights and responsibilities amid COVID-19, record and report health rights violations and refer those who may need legal aid to CEHURD through the toll free line – 0800 31 3131. All this should be done in respect to MOH guidelines.
The right to health is inherent and ought to be protected especially the lives of mothers and their newborn babies. Health workers should be supported to save lives and mothers taken good care of while bringing life to earth. Despite the pandemic, reproductive and maternal functions are ongoing, even escalated by the lock down, characterised by high sexual engagement both consensual and non-consensual. COVID-19 is a big public health threat but not worse than maternal deaths, this is evidenced by the fact that mothers and babies have been and are continuing to be lost due to effects of the lock down. Under these circumstances, isn’t it time for the country to re-think its restrictions and prioritise access to quality maternal and child health services? It’s unacceptable for women to die at the hands of traditional birth attendants and COVID-19 should be a learning opportunity for the Ugandan government. At the moment, Uganda is exposed and we need to work harder to ensure that women’s lives are protected and not lose another woman due to preventable child-birth related complications.
For God and my Country.
The writer is a programme officer at Center for Health, Human Rights and Development (CEHURD).

A version of this article was originally published in the Daily Monitor on 11th July 2020.

COVID-19 and its Implications on young people’s access to Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights services in Mayuge District


My name is Mesach Makumbi, a 24-year-old from Magamaga Town Council in Mayuge District. I am a young leader in my society, as a Community Health Advocate (CHA). I was trained by the Center for Health Human Rights and Development (CEHURD) to undertake community advocacy and  guide young people to go through a better healthcare system as well as help the voiceless to be heard and get involved in emerging health  issues.

As a young leader, I am concerned that some of the measures the government of Uganda has adopted to curb COVID-19 water down our efforts to advance sexual reproductive health rights (SRHR) in our communities. In a bid to curb the spread of this pandemic, the state came up with directives however, these have indirectly affected young people in accessing services to their Sexual Reproductive Health  needs as follows;

1. The President’s directive suspending both private and public transport in order to prevent the spread of COVID19 has affected young people’s accessibility of  SRHR services as most of them travel long distances  using public transport. A case in point are the young people living with HIV who can only access their ARVs from health facilities which are not within their district of residence hence risking their lives.

2.  The ban of group interactions to ensure social distancing has barely left young people with no access to information on SRHR.   Not all young people especially in rural areas like Mayuge have access to radio, TV or even social media platforms to keep informed of SRHR in this era. This diminishes  our efforts as CHAs andits therefore  imperative that we think ofavenues that allow young people access SRHR information asthey are continuously engaging in sexual intercourse and chances of recording teenage pregnancies and related unsafe abortions are high

 As a young leader I took the responsibility of visiting a health center to understand  services available for young people during this time. The health workers indicated that they lacked protective wear e.g. mask, gloves to attend to the young people since they might acquire the COVID-19 from them; shortage of SRHR services arising from the government and NGO’s failure to supply due to COVID-19; very few health workers are able to reach and attend to the patients since a number of them come from very far and they cannot walk to the health facilities; Patients seeking medication for flu and cough are not treated by health workers- they developed stigma for COVID and work with a lot of fear

I call upon the government of Uganda to take these SRHR issues as a serious matter and come up with possible solutions in time because young people who are positive living are not accessing their ARVS, there is no access to SRHR information. I accordingly propose the following interventions:

a.       Therefore the government should provide protective gear to health workers in order to enable the smooth running of their work

b.       They should stock SRHR needs for the young people in the facility and put in place any means of transport which is ready to deliver these SRHR products to the needy ones once they fail to do so young people’s life are at high risks.

The writer is a community health advocate in Mayuge District

Tobacco use continues to kill up to half of its users

By Esther Dhafa

Every year on 31st May the World Health Organisation (WHO) and Global Partners celebrate the “World No Tobacco Day”, an annual campaign aimed at raising awareness on the harmful and deadly effects of tobacco use and second-hand smoke exposure, and to discourage the use of tobacco in any form.

This year, the World No Tobacco Day was celebrated under the theme Protecting youth from industry manipulation and preventing them from Tobacco and Nicotine use”. The 2020 global campaign serves to equip young people with knowledge about the tobacco and related industries’ intentions and tactics to hook current and future generations on tobacco and nicotine products.

Tobacco use and COVID-19

This year’s commemoration came at a time when the world was facing the coronavirus pandemic. This brought forth an opportunity for countries all over the world to step up tobacco control efforts, heighten information sharing on tobacco use and COVID-19, and broaden understanding of the link between tobacco use and COVID-19 infection. It is also an opportunity to accelerate contextualised tobacco control, informed by the WHO FCTC Guidelines on the obligations of member states to counter tactics used by the tobacco industry. This is because the tobacco industry has for a long time deliberately employed strategic, aggressive and well-resourced tactics to attract people to use tobacco and nicotine products. 

According to the WHO Fact sheet/Detail on Tobacco published on 26th July 2019, tobacco use continues to kill up to half of its users. The fact sheet adds that it kills more than eight million people each year of which more than seven million of those deaths are the result of direct tobacco use while around 1.2 million are the result of non-smokers being exposed to second-hand smoke. 

This year, we emphasise the fact that tobacco use and smoking in particular is a risk factor for COVID-19, an infectious disease that primarily attacks the lungs. As smoking is a leading risk factor for heart disease, lung cancer, reduces immunity and makes us more susceptible to respiratory infections including pneumonia, it is also a risk for COVID-19 infection. This is especially because smokers touch their mouth and face more. A review of studies by public health experts convened by WHO on 29th April 2020 found that smokers are more likely to develop severe cases of COVID-19, compared to non-smokers. 

Recent studies have continued to show that smokers who contract the virus are more likely to suffer severe symptoms and even die. Once a smoker has been hospitalised for COVID-19, the outcome is likely to be even worse. Smoking is detrimental to the immune system and its responsiveness to infections makes smokers more vulnerable to infectious diseases like Coronavirus. (Zhou Z Chen P Peng H are healthy smokers’ really healthy? Tob Induc Dis. 2016; 14 (November). Doi: 10.1186/s 12971-). 

There are also higher percentages of current and former smokers among patients that need ICU support, mechanical ventilation, or who have died and a higher percentage of smokers among the severe COVID-19 cases (Guan WJ, Ni ZY, Hu,Y, et al. Clinical characteristics of coronavirus disease 2019 in China. N Engl J Med. 2020). Smokers are therefore more likely to have severe symptoms of COVID-19, and are more likely to be admitted to an ICU, or require mechanical ventilation or die compared to non-smokers.

Impact of the covid-19 pandemic on tobacco control implementation in Uganda

Since the start of the pandemic, tobacco control efforts have since been significantly impacted. Implementation of tobacco control measures is coordinated under the Ministry of Health (in one of the departments that tackles tobacco use, NCDs, mental health, alcohol and substance abuse), and yet the MOH’s involvement and efforts are entirely directed towards response to COVID-19 as a priority. 

The government has also continued to receive donations from tobacco industries (Leaf Tobacco and Merchandise Ltd, Meridian Tobacco Company) towards the COVID-19 National Taskforce/Response as stated in the national address by His Excellency the President on Tuesday 14th April 2020, contrary to Section 22 of the Tobacco Control Act 2015 and the WHO FCTC. 

The Government must be weary of donations that compromise public health as it is their duty to protect the public health, laws and policies from commercial and other vested interest of the Tobacco Industry. By donating, the Tobacco Industry is trying to improve their corporate image by showing social responsibility to the population, and sending deceptive messages to the public about Tobacco industry operations and their products. Partnership with the Tobacco Industry also undermines Government’s credibility in protecting people’s health since there is a fundamental and irreconcilable conflict between the Tobacco Industry’s interests and Public Health Policy interests.

This comes at a time when Ugandans are in a lock down for over 2 months now and are at home bored, which makes many of them easily get the temptation to smoke cigarettes or related products, contrary to what the law provides.

Way forward and Conclusion:

As we commemorate the World No Tobacco Day on 31st May 2020 and recognizing the fact that smoking could increase the risk of people contracting COVID-19 more, we call upon Government, young people, and the entire population to;

  • Support implementation of the Tobacco Control Act 2015 and the WHO FCTC.
  • Join hands to make healthy lifestyle choices through avoid the use of tobacco and related products 
  • Educating themselves and others to support the Tobacco Control cause through complying with the tobacco control and public health measures in place

Adhering to these will help reduce the morbidity and mortality of cancers caused by tobacco smoke and COVID-19 as well.

The writer is a Programme Officer  in the Campaigns, Partnerships and Networks Programme.

Urgent Recommendations From Stakeholders On Health Rights For School Going Young People During the COVID-19 Lock Down

MINISTRY OF EDUCATION AND SPORTS

P. O. BOX 7063 Kampala, Uganda
Tel: 256-414-234451/4
Fax: 256-414-234920
Email: pro@education.go.ug

FAX +256-414234920

Greetings,

In Uganda, the first case of COVID-19 was reported on March 21st 2020 from a traveler returning home from Dubai. He was intercepted at Entebbe International Airport. Since then, the confirmed cases have risen to 657, with 118 recoveries and no deaths as of 9th June 2020.  Most of these cases are “imported” as they are from returning travelers or their contacts. However, there have been a few identified from the community, confirming that there is community transmission in Uganda.

Several measures intended to flatten the pandemic curve in Uganda were adopted, including the closure of schools due to the fact that social distancing was not practically possible in our school setting. These measures have been effective and we applaud His Excellency the President of Uganda for the leadership as well as the COVID-19 task force at the Ministry of Health. The Uganda education system has over 15 million learners with an additional 600,000 attending schools in refugee settlements. In your maiden address to the nation since the closure of schools, you highlighted April 27th 2020 as the tentative date for the reopening of schools and higher institutions of learning.

However, the increasing number of cases of COVID-19 in the country resulted in the extension of the lockdown by 21 days. This prompted your second address in which you noted that schools would not reopen as initially communicated. In the same address, you emphasized the need for continuation of learning despite the delayed re-opening of schools and issued various strategies to facilitate this process including; radio, television, and self-directed learning materials that would be disseminated in the national newspapers.

On the continuity of learning, I informed you that this happens beyond the four walls of a classroom but reinforced by effective implementation of the whole curriculum. In the present circumstances of total lockdown, the greatest contributors to learning are the parents and immediate family” – Hon. Janet Kataaha Museveni, Minister of Education and Sports.

In his 15th National address on COVID19, the president noted that schools re-opening will only be considered after a month from the 28th May 2020 with only learners in candidate classes being allowed to resume school.    Civil Society Organizations advancing the sexual and reproductive health and wellbeing of individuals across Ugandan communities, recognize the timely and monumental strides made by the Ministry of Education and Sports under your leadership to ensure continuity of learning despite the lock down.  As these innovative strategies are being adopted across communities, other issues that could potentially impede the successful learning of young people remain partially unaddressed.

 The inequalities and inequities further exacerbate the already existing inhibitions to learning as indicated below;

  • The proposed methodologies of learning prioritize traditional subjects. However, sexual and reproductive health needs of young people have not been prioritized, including access to correct, age-appropriate, and culturally sensitive information which facilitates informed decision making regarding their health and lives. 
  • The disruption in the school syllabus could result in work assignment overload for learners in a bid to make up for lost time, which could cause stress and compromise the mental health and wellbeing of both learners and teachers. This may push some children to lose interest in learning due to the pressure, teachers failing to complete the syllabus yet exams can be set from anywhere, leading to low grades, and eventually school dropout.          
  • Learners from hard to reach areas and those with special needs may experience difficulties in accessing learning materials as disseminated on the various platforms and channels.
  • The learners living in child-headed and economically deprived homes are likely to benefit less from the proposed strategies of learning as their priorities are divided between meeting their basic needs and dedicating time to learning- yet accessing the learning materials is close to impossible for most of them.
  • The capacity of parents is not strengthened enough to bridge the sexual and reproductive health information gaps and ably support learners during this period to appreciate sexuality education which also includes information on growth, puberty, fertility, dangers of early sex, and pregnancy among others.

Recommendations

Developing and establishing  robust crisis response strategies  for the learners in candidate classes   that have so far been directed by the president to resume school  in a months’ time and those still in the  during the lockdown and   to ensure their overall health and wellbeing. Therefore, the Civil Society Organizations propose that the Ministry of Education and Sports;

  • Expedites the passing and implementation of the National School Health Policy to guide and rejuvenate the school health programmes post the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Operationalizes the National Sexuality Education Framework as per the presidential commitment at the ICPD+25 conference in Nairobi, See
  •  Establish mechanisms of protecting learners and teachers as schools re-open, ensuring that they have masks, hand washing facilities, temperature guns, among others to minimize the spread of the virus.
  • That the Ministry revises the school calendar and supports the school administrators to adjust to the revised calendars to avoid panic in schools in a bid to complete the syllabus.
  • That the Ministry ensures that all schools have psychosocial support to meet the mental health and sexual reproductive needs of learners and teachers. Train senior women and male  teachers on how to provide counselling and deal with the different health needs of young people, including implementation of the Girl child School Re-entry and Retention Strategy to give any girls who may report to school with pregnancies, an opportunity to continue with their studies
  • Ensure liaison of schools with nearby health centers and that the test kits for the COVID19 are available and accessible in the various healthcare centres at any time for access by schools.
  • Address the unique health challenges of adolescents like sexual and gender based violence, teenage pregnancies, menstrual health and HIV, among others within the learning medium and materials shared for learners.
  • That the Ministry of Education and Sports establishes the Operational Standard Procedures and guidelines to direct learning institutions operate amid COVID19 and establish  a feasible and  coordinated plan to ensure that the public health preventive measures of COVID19 such as installing hand washing facilities , social distancing, and  wearing of masks, among others are in place.
  • That Ministry of Education and Sports works with operators of the institutions of learning to devise practical measures for school fees payment and  opportunities to educate their children amid the financial constraints that the response to COVID-19 has created, as many people have stopped working. Post COVID-19, this will prevent learners from dropping out of school as a result of defaulting on school fees.

We will appreciate your timely response and action.

Sincerely,

  1. Center for Education, Graduate Entrepreneurship and Empowerment
  2. Center for Health, Human Rights and Development
  3. Joy For Children Uganda
  4. Naguru Teenage Center
  5. Partners in Community Transformation
  6. Philomera Hope Foundation
  7. Public Health Ambassadors Uganda
  8. Reach A hand Uganda
  9. Reproductive Health Uganda
  10. Sexual and  Reproductive Health Alliance Uganda
  11. Teach for Uganda
  12. Uganda Health Marketing Group
  13. We talk series Uganda
  14. White Ribbon Alliance Uganda
  15. Youth Equality Center

A version of this article was originally published in the Daily Monitor on Friday 19th June 2020.