Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pregnant African Women’s Neglected Disease

By Esther Nakkazi

Twenty-two year old Lorriane Akampurira thought she had minor problems with her pregnancy. Her feet were swollen. Later her whole body too. It was her first pregnancy.

“People started saying that it was because I was carrying twins. Others said the baby was big,” said Lorraine. When she started feeling real sick she went to hospital. At that point her whole body was swollen like ‘there was water in it and it could burst anytime.’

Lorraine's husband was worried all the time but had no answers. They are a young couple, newly married and with no experience. “My wife could not sleep at night yet people kept on saying the body swelling was normal. She was in pain all night, very night. I kept on asking myself about this normal swelling?,” said Mr. Akampurira.

When Lorraine arrived at the hospital, one look at her from the doctor was enough. The baby had to be removed immediately in order to save the life of mother and baby. She was diagnosed with Pre-eclampsia.

Pre-eclampsia and eclampsia remain ‘neglected diseases’ among African women.

On 22nd May, the Akampuliras joined the rest of the world to commemorate the inaugural world Pre-eclampsia day. In Uganda, the event was organised by the Health Systems Advocacy Partnership (HSAP) project under the theme; ‘Take the Pre-eclampsia Pledge; know the symptoms. Spread the word.’

Pre-eclampsia is a common pregnancy complication that is characterised by new-onset of hypertension. Studies show that women in the developing world are 300 times more at risk of dying from pre-eclampsia.

In Uganda, 368 women die from pregnancy and childbirth-related causes per 100,000 live births and hypertensive disorder, or pre-eclampsia and eclampsia is the second most common cause of maternal death after postpartum haemorrhage.

The cause of pre-eclampsia is unclear but it has been observed to run in families suggesting that there is a genetic predisposition to it. It is still an unknown disease, with no local language equivalent and no clinically useful screening test. Health workers can detect pre-eclampsia by diagnosing persistent hypertension and the presence of protein in urine.

Dr Annettee Nakimuli, the head of the gynaecology and obstetrics department at Mulago referral hospital said at least 4 women die per day at Mulago due to pre-eclampsia and it is responsible for 8% of admissions of pregnant women at this hospital.

Nakimuli said the condition presents with signs like swelling of the body but generally there is no pain. Because of this many women suffer ignorantly. On top of this, pre-eclampsia is surrounded by myths; some say it is witchcraft, a pregnancy of twins, a baby girl as well it is labelled as ‘a disease of cheating women.’

Nakimuli said all women are at risk but more so those in the extreme age bracket; below 19 or over 40 years of age as well as those who get pregnant through IVF.

When Lorraine’s baby girl was delivered at six months she was assured that the body swelling would stop but it did not. Even as she attended this world pre-eclampsia day, her legs were still swollen. She also suffered from kidney disease and was on her way to hospital for another check up of her heart which could have been damaged.

The Akampurira’s baby lived for only nine days and died. She had breathing problems.

In Uganda, pre-eclampsia is also the leading cause of pre-marital birth. The babies are usually born pre-term, they are small for age and their survival is limited.

“Death is the worst. Women with pre-eclampsia get complications and remain sick forever,” said Nakimuli. Complications include stroke, breathing problems, kidney failure, cardiovascular disease and others.

At Mulago, the gynaecology and obstetrics Unit remits the biggest number of patients for dialysis. “The urologists are always complaining to us because we send them the most patients,” said Nakimuli. 

Efforts to end pre-eclampsia in Uganda;

On 22nd May, the Health Systems Advocacy Partnership (HSAP), a project seeking to bring stronger health systems so people in Sub-Saharan Africa, particularly Uganda gain better access to sexual and reproductive health services joined the world to bring attention to pre-eclampsia and other hypertensive disorders.

“Hypertensive disorders are not rare complications of pregnancy,” said Denis Kibira the executive director of HEPS-Uganda. Kibira said the government needs to expand access to proven under utilised interventions and commodities for prevention as well as avail early detection and treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia.

Luckily, Uganda knows what to do with pre-eclampsia but there are still some hurdles along the way.

Dr. Jessica Nsungwa Sabiiti, the commissioner in charge of Reproductive Health at the Ministry of Health said Uganda has a policy that recommends the use of Magnesium Sulphate, for use for women suffering from pre-eclampsia.

Magnesium Sulphate, a cheap drug, is one of the 13 UN Lifesaving Commodities for women and children on the Uganda national essential medicine list. Its overall availability in Uganda health facilities is 77 percent.

Unfortunately, health workers especially nurses and midwives, who are the first contact for mothers with pre-eclampsia are not prescribing the drug, said Nsungwa. “They fear the toxicity so their lack of confidence prevents them from prescribing it.”

As a result of fear to prescribe, the nurses wait for the doctors at the detriment of the mother’s health and yet there are just a few of these in primary health care.

But with the awareness growing and government committed to train health workers there is some light at the end of the tunnel. Let alone the condition getting world recognition.

“I was so excited that there is at last world pre-eclampsia day. It will create awareness. We are on our way to success,” said Nakimuli.

After the event, Akampurira and her husband said they were on their way to pick the ‘heart-health’ results from the hospital. Hopefully, the young couple will have the next baby survive.