“This is a woman who did exactly what she was supposed to do; she did exactly what we encourage pregnant women to do,” said Amy Dempsey of the Population Council at a recent Wilson Center event on World Preeclampsia Day. The Ethiopian woman was suffering from preeclampsia—a preventable condition—but like many pregnant women in low- and middle-income countries, she did not receive the treatment needed to stop it. “Pregnancy was the first time she had ever stepped foot in a health facility,” said Dempsey.
Preeclampsia is characterized as the rise of blood pressure during pregnancy. Symptoms include (but are not limited to) headaches, nausea, abdominal pain, changes in vision, and shortness of breath. “She had constant headaches and blurry vision…At each visit, her providers measured her blood pressure but none of them told her that it was high or why they were measuring it,” said Dempsey. “She was told that what she was feeling was normal for a pregnant woman.”
Although magnesium sulfate is commonly used to prevent seizures (eclampsia) later on in pregnancy, the patient did not receive treatment for her preeclampsia symptoms. “After one contact point with the health system, she was sent home with paracetamol to treat her headaches,” said Dempsey.
In her eighth month of pregnancy, she collapsed. Her husband drove her to their church, where he hoped faith would heal her. “When her condition did not improve, he took her back to their local healthcare facility,” where she was referred to a hospital, treated with magnesium sulfate for her seizures, and given an emergency Caesarean section, said Dempsey.
Fortunately, the woman was able to deliver a healthy baby boy. But five months later, she still experiences the same symptoms of headaches and abdominal pain, and has not been back in contact with her health providers since her initial postpartum visits.
“She was never told that what she was experiencing were symptoms of preeclampsia,” said Dempsey. “What she went through is fairly common for women in low- and middle-income countries, where challenges that they encounter are quite different from the barriers that women in high-income countries deal with.”
Sources: Healthline, Population Council, Preeclampsia Foundation