Professor Kelsey Harrison, MD, DSc, FRCOG

Before a packed audience of hundreds of physicians and allied health professionals at the recently concluded ANPA convention in Chicago, the keynote speaker, Professor Kelsey Harrison, cited socio-economic and political chaos as the underlying disease behind Nigeria’s persistent health  crisis. His address, titled “The continuing high maternal mortality and morbidity in Nigeria is unacceptable” was delivered on Thursday, July  7, 2011.

Harrison, a renowned obstetrician and gynecologist, former Vice Chancellor of the University of Port Harcourt, and recipient of the Nigerian National Order of Merit, lamented that by the target year 2015 the country will not likely meet any of the eight Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) set by the United Nations in 2000. He expressed particular concern regarding Nigeria’s lagging performance in MDGs #4 and 5 (reducing maternal and under fives mortality).

The former Head of Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, examined Nigeria’s health system through the prism of the country’s reproductive health services, noting that while some progress has been made, much more still needs to be done to curb the high infant and maternal mortality. “A maternal mortality ratio for Nigeria estimated to be in excess of 800 deaths per 100,000 births, in this day and age is unacceptable. Everybody knows this”, he said.

Citing data from the 1985 Zaria Maternity Survey, Professor Harrison noted that the death rate among pregnant women who had unplanned deliveries was 2,900 per 100,000, similar to that of Europe in the 16–18th centuries. In contrast, the maternal mortality ratio among women who had a planned delivery was less than 40 per 100,000, similar to the UK in the 1940s. Furthermore he noted that there were no deaths amongst the over 1,300 women with post-primary education.  This, he said, underscored the benefits to be gained by empowering and educating women to take control of their own health needs.

Professor Harrison did not pull any punches in laying out his presciptions for reducing the dismal rates of infant and maternal mortality in the country :

“High maternal mortality is one out of a cluster of conditions that are caused by one thing, bad obstetric care. Bad obstetric care is largely because of the existing chaos in the country. It is this chaos that is the underlying disease. To transform our society from one in which hardly anything works properly to one in which most things work to the general benefit of the whole society, bold measures are required, and they are largely political. Serious thought has to be given to the institution of changes in the way the country is governed, and in the way the vast majority of citizens live. Keeping the masses of our people compliant (poor, uneducated, uninformed and unemployed or underemployed) is most certainly not the answer.”

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