Universal Health Coverage: Prioritizing Maternal and Child Health

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Mahnoor Khan

As we journey into the heart of Pakistan, a nation brimming with vibrancy and potential, we find ourselves at a crossroads. At one turn, we glimpse the beauty of its rich culture and the warmth of its people. Yet, at another, we confront an array of challenges that shadow the nation’s promise. Among these, none is more pressing or significant than the state of child and maternal health. In a nation where rapid population growth is intertwined with planned and unplanned pregnancies, where health disparities persist, and where maternal and child health outcomes reflect both progress and pressing need, the story of child and maternal health unfolds.
Through this journey, we seek not only to uncover the stark realities but to shed light on the path forward as we endeavor to empower change, raising awareness, and inspiring action for a healthier, more equitable future for Pakistan’s children and mothers.
At the very outset of this exploration, it’s essential to comprehend the multifaceted issues surrounding child health. Pakistan’s demographic landscape paints a unique picture. According to recent Pakistan Demographic and Health Surveys (PDHS 2017-18), the rate of births to women aged 15-19 remains alarmingly high. This trend not only threatens the health of adolescent mothers but also perpetuates cycles of poverty and health disparities.
Within this landscape, another unsettling reality emerges – the challenge of child mortality. Recent PDHS (2017-18) statistics reveal a somber truth: the mortality rate for children under five remains higher than desired, with malnutrition often lurking as an underlying cause. Stunted growth, a visible marker of malnutrition, continues to plague a substantial portion of Pakistan’s children, robbing them of their full potential and leaving an indelible mark on the nation’s human capital.
As we dissect these issues, a pattern of disadvantage emerges. Poverty and a lack of access to basic healthcare services further exacerbate child health challenges. A lack of affordability becomes a barrier to essential healthcare, education, and even proper nutrition. One grim consequence of this cycle is the increase in child labor. The need for additional income, driven by economic hardships, compels children to enter the labor force prematurely. It’s a harsh trade-off, as their dreams of education and a brighter future are sacrificed at the altar of economic necessity.
Turning our focus to maternal health, we encounter a diverse set of challenges. Pakistan’s maternal health indicators reflect both progress and pressing need. While maternal mortality has seen some improvement, the nation still grapples with preventable maternal deaths. The issue of underage marriages continues to cast a long shadow over maternal health. Forced pregnancies, often a consequence of such unions, take a severe toll on young mothers’ health.
In the critical hours of pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum, the healthcare system plays a pivotal role. However, disparities in access to quality healthcare persist, leaving many women vulnerable to complications. Here, a closer look at PDHS (2017-18) statistics data can elucidate the gravity of the situation. Maternal healthcare utilization varies widely across regions, with rural areas often facing the brunt of inadequate facilities and skilled birth attendants. As we navigate the landscape of child and maternal health in Pakistan, it becomes evident that these challenges are deeply interconnected. Recent PDHS (2017-18) data reveals that 36.9% of Pakistani children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth due to malnutrition. High fertility rates, child labor, maternal mortality, malnutrition, and limited access to quality healthcare are all threads in the same fabric. To address one is to pull the others closer to resolution.
In Pakistan, a complex web of challenges surrounds the intersection of low literacy rates and healthcare decision-making, creating a formidable barrier to progress. In urban slums, misinformation often takes root due to low literacy levels and limited access to credible health education. Rumors and myths about vaccinations, family planning, and disease prevention circulate unchecked.
To dismantle the barriers created by low literacy rates and health illiteracy, a multifaceted approach is imperative. Initiatives that promote basic education, especially among women and marginalized communities, form the foundational step. Integrating health education into the curriculum and leveraging community health workers as educators can bridge the knowledge gap. In the digital age, technology emerges as a powerful ally in combating health illiteracy. Mobile health (mHealth) initiatives deliver health information through text messages, voice calls, and mobile apps, ensuring that critical health knowledge reaches even remote areas. These innovative solutions empower individuals to make informed healthcare decisions.
Comprehensive policies that prioritize education and health literacy must take center stage. Increased investments in education, especially for girls, and the development of culturally sensitive health communication materials are vital steps.
Access to healthcare facilities staffed by skilled birth attendants is a critical factor in reducing maternal mortality. These facilities can provide essential services such as Antenatal Care, Skilled Birth Attendance, and Emergency Obstetric Care. In Pakistan’s quest for better child and maternal health, government policies and interventions play a pivotal role.
Many community-based programs struggle with limited resources, inadequate training, and insufficient recognition. Expanding and strengthening these initiatives is crucial to harness their full potential. Collaboration between government bodies and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is pivotal to the success of community-based interventions. Government support can ensure that these programs receive the necessary resources and recognition, while NGOs often bring innovation and expertise to the table. Promote collaboration between various government departments, including health, education, labor, and women’s development, to ensure a holistic approach to addressing child and maternal health.
The path to improving child and maternal health in Pakistan is multidimensional and requires a sustained commitment from all stakeholders. By implementing these recommendations, Pakistan can work towards a future where children and mothers enjoy better health outcomes, reduced malnutrition, improved access to healthcare, and an environment that empowers women and girls to make informed decisions about their well-being. The goal is not merely to address the immediate challenges but to pave the way for a healthier and more prosperous Pakistan in the years to come.
(The writer is an Islamabad-based freelance analyst.)