Image: Dr Elissa Kennedy speaking on International Women's Day this year
This Mother’s Day, new mother Elissa Kennedy’s thoughts will be with a young Kenyan woman she met over 10 years ago.
Dr Kennedy, recently appointed Program Director of Maternal and Child Health at Burnet, was volunteering at an urban slum in Kenya for six months in 2006 as a junior doctor, and had seen the woman through her pregnancy.
“For many women it is prohibitively expensive to have your baby in a hospital. She came from a very poor household and didn’t have the money for hospital fees so delivered her baby at home without skilled help,” she said.
“But she developed complications during delivery and because she was unable to access life-saving care, she died.
“Her husband came in a couple of days later with the baby, worried because she had been unwell. He didn’t have money to go to a hospital and had no support.
“We had to break it to him that his newborn daughter had died. He lost his wife and child within 48 hours.”
Struck by the harsh inequalities underlying these deaths, Dr Kennedy decided to pursue a career in public health where she hoped to influence greater change.
“We had the tools to save that woman’s life and that baby’s life … if they had been in a different setting, in a different country, they would have been fine,” she said.
“I’d been reasonably sheltered living in Australia. Being exposed to that in Kenya set me on a path. I wanted to help.”
These days she oversees a program with projects in Papua New Guinea, Nepal, Myanmar, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Zimbabwe.
The Maternal and Child Health Program, with its flagship program Healthy Mothers, Healthy Babies in PNG, aims to reduce the enormous inequity in morbidity and mortality. The MCH Program has a strong focus on research and interventions around the time of pregnancy and childbirth, when the majority of deaths occur.
It looks at the major contributors to poor pregnancy outcomes, such as malaria, under-nutrition, HIV and sexually transmitted infections, as well as developing and testing new tools and strategies to improve women’s access to quality services.
The program also recognises that the underlying determinants of poor maternal and child health need to be addressed, including a focus on gender inequality and gender-based violence, as well as improving the health of women and young people before pregnancy. Adolescent pregnancy is a particular priority.
“Globally we are experiencing the biggest population of young people aged 10-24 years in human history. Adolescence is a crucial life stage – it presents a unique opportunity not only to ensure the health of young people now and their health as adults, but also an opportunity to improve the health of their future children,” Dr Kennedy said.
“Every day 20,000 girls under the age of 18 years give birth and they are at increased risk of complications such as preterm delivery, low birth weight, and newborn mortality. Girls aged less than 16 are also more likely to die during pregnancy and childbirth than adult women.
“If we can support adolescents to delay childbearing we can make significant gains in maternal and child health, as well as achieving broader benefits like enabling girls to complete education and improving gender equality.”
Image: Dr Elissa Kennedy (far left) was one of the key speakers at IWD 2017. Pictured with keynote speaker Stephanie Copus-Campbell (keynote), Associate Professor Heidi Drummer, Annamarie Laumaea and Burnet Board member, Associate Professor Helen Evans AO.
While progress has been made in maternal and newborn health globally, it has been uneven, with many challenges remaining. These include better understanding of the causes of adverse pregnancy outcomes, like malaria, as well as better tools and approaches to improve access to life-saving care.
“What’s so frustrating is that in many cases we know what needs to be done, and what services women need, but the big challenge is how do we deliver them in really complicated settings,” she said.
Dr Kennedy’s own first experience of childbirth last year gave her a more personal insight into her work. Diagnosed with an obstructed labour, with her unborn baby’s heart all but stopped, she was rushed into an emergency caesarean.
“My son was born safely, kicking and screaming. We went home a few days later and he’s been as happy and healthy as you could wish for,” she said.
“Had I been in a different part of the world, unable to afford hospital care, or unable to access quality care, like that woman in Kenya, my baby would almost certainly not have survived, and there’s every chance I would not have either. And that is utterly unfair.”
Her new perspective had helped her understand the feelings of women on the other side of her research.
“Going through pregnancy myself I have a new appreciation for the incredible strength of women, but also a better understanding of how vulnerable you are during that time,“ she said.
“There is so much you don’t have control over: you are so reliant on the people around you and having the systems in place to support you when you need it.
“It’s a very unifying thing that you share universally with all mothers. You’ve all gone through that experience of childbirth, you would all give anything for your children, you’re all terrified you’re not doing a good enough job. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world.”
Dr Kennedy paid tribute to her own mother who she credits with passing on a sense of social justice, teaching her from childhood to ‘call out’ injustice where she saw it and supporting her to take risks.
“What I would wish for Mothers Day is that for every woman, every couple, that the occasion of pregnancy and childbirth is something that is wanted and safe; that results in a healthy, happy mother and child.”
Image: Dr Kennedy with her mum at the IWD 2017 luncheon at Burnet.