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Improving Maternal Healthcare for the Most Disadvantaged Women

By Dr. Naveen Rao, Lead, MSD for Mothers

September 1, 2016

With so much conflict and upheaval in the world right now, it's women—especially pregnant women—who are facing some of the most devastating consequences of war and recession.

A few weeks ago, I visited Athens, Greece to celebrate the launch of “Mother and Child,” a program of Doctors of the World - Greece, designed to help some of the most marginalized pregnant women in the region.* Greece is wrestling with a range of challenges, from an increase in immigrants and refugees to a struggling economy and soaring unemployment rates. In a country where nearly one-third of the population lacks healthcare coverage, pregnant women, specifically refugee women, are particularly vulnerable. The importance of this program and its potential impact didn’t hit me until I visited a local refugee camp and met some of the displaced women these mobile units could ultimately help.

While walking through the camp, I was stunned by the number of people there already, and by the fact that more were expected to arrive. And when I saw the pregnant women and mothers of young children, overwhelming feelings of doubt really started to sink in. How could we possibly provide all these women with the health services they need? 

But the health providers I met and the resilience they demonstrated was inspiring.

It was humbling to see how these dedicated health workers were able to maintain a sense of normalcy in a community created out of unnatural circumstances. Despite these families’ terrifying experiences, uncertain futures and overall gloom our visit was punctuated with the sounds of laughing children and an underlying current of hope.

As I reflect on my time there, I’m reminded of this story: a child is walking on the beach where thousands and thousands of starfish have washed ashore. He sees an old woman carefully picking up one starfish after another and placing them back into the ocean in an attempt to save them. Puzzled by her actions, the child says, “Don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach covered in starfish and you can’t possibly save them all. In fact, even if you work all day, your efforts won't make any difference at all.” The old woman listened, bent down to pick up another starfish, and before placing it in the ocean, simply said, “It made a difference to that one.”

This is why I’m passionate about MSD for Mothers. My team and I are extremely encouraged by the impact we are having in saving women’s lives, but that excitement is oftentimes tempered by the sobering reality that we haven’t reached all women in need.  Right now, in addition to initiatives in India and sub-Saharan Africa, we’re supporting programs throughout Europe - ranging from medical missions to digital health aids like the Safe Delivery App, in an effort to provide healthcare providers and women with the tools and resources they need before, during, and after childbirth.

Through MSD for Mothers, we now have the opportunity to further these efforts globally through the support of committed partners who understand that reaching one woman, especially those in disadvantaged areas, is just as powerful as reaching them all.


*This program is supported by funding from MSD, through MSD for Mothers.


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Naveen Rao, MD Lead, MSD for Mothers

Dr. Rao leads MSD for Mothers, MSD's signature initiative to reduce maternal mortality around the world. In this capacity, Dr. Rao is responsible for leveraging the company's science and business expertise to accelerate progress in reaching Millennium Development Goal 5 and advancing MSD's mission to improve and save lives.