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May 27, 2017

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Childbirth particularly perilous in Guinea-Bissau

GABU, Guinea-Bissau -- Fatumata Djau gave birth to her fourth daughter alone, at home, in the dark. She arrived at the hospital at 3 a.m. with the newborn still attached, and the midwife cut the cord in the parking lot.

Hours later, the 32-year-old mother lies listless on her side as sweat beads trickle down her back. She has lost a lot of blood, and the maternity ward is stifling, with no electricity to whirl the rusty ceiling fans to life.

Across the courtyard, first-time mother Aissato Sanha is following doctor's orders — she is spending the final three weeks of a high-risk pregnancy in a bed literally a dash from the delivery room. But she is young, maybe too young, in her teens, and she has high blood pressure.

Both women are up against the same challenge: Guinea-Bissau is one of the deadliest places in the world to give birth.

Despite some progress, childbirth is still a perilous endeavor across sub-Saharan Africa, and Guinea-Bissau stands out for its dire statistics. A woman has a 1 in 19 chance of maternal death in this tiny country, compared to about 1 in 2,100 in the United States.

'Give life without dying'

Amid the maze of packed beds at the Gabu Regional Hospital, Djau's distraught relatives cluster around her bed in the tiny ward. The room reeks of iodine and bed pans. The howls of labor pain form a chorus with the cries of newborns swaddled in rusty bassinets.

"Give life without dying," reads the poster taped above the chairs where women deliver their babies. It is apt — Guinea-Bissau's maternal mortality rate is the fourth-highest in the world, after Afghanistan, Somalia and Chad. But few can read the sign anyway, because 60 percent of women here are illiterate.

Most women still prefer to have babies in their villages, where they sit in a stew of warm water and banana leaves as matrons coax labor along. However, if anything goes wrong, they are often far from a hospital.

As in many parts of western Africa, Guinea-Bissau's hospitals are few and far between. A journey of just 11 miles can take three hours by foot, or cost up to 10,000 francs (US$20) for a car, should one happen to be available.

Even if a mother gets to a hospital, families must purchase anesthesia drugs before emergency operations can take place. While Djau is hooked up to an IV, a brother is sent out to buy medicine to stop the blood loss.

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