Maternal mortality in Europe is low compared to other parts of the world. However, look closer at the statistics and you’ll see that within the seemingly rosy picture are vast inequities, with immigrant and ethnic minority women greatly over-represented in Europe’s 1,900 maternal deaths per year. It was this realisation that spurred the Alliance for Maternal Health Equality’s founders into action. “We realised that, even if on paper minority groups have access to healthcare systems, in reality they don’t always benefit as the system is not designed for them,” says Nicholas Brooke, founder and executive officer of The Synergist, the group behind the Alliance’s formation.
Brooke’s involvement with the issue of maternal health began two years ago after a meeting with physician and former VP of UCB, Lode Dewulf, at TEDxBrussels . Having witnessed his wife’s difficult labour, and recalling how unable he felt to interact with the healthcare system, Brooke had a personal interest in health literacy. This, combined with Dewulf’s passion for better knowledge around pregnancy and medication, led to the creation of the Pregnancy & Medicine Initiative.
However, while the work of the Pregnancy & Medicine Initiative is vital, the Synergist team felt that there was an independent issue urgently in need of addressing.
“We were trying to solve the problem of medicine and pregnancy but there was another issue that goes deeper,” Brooke says. “And that’s how society is actually delivering healthcare to pregnant women and mothers.”
The Synergist specialises in solving just this type of problem: identifying an issue, then building public-private partnerships with industry leaders and NGOs. A meeting was set up with an existing project, MSD for Mothers, a 10‐year global initiative seeking to reduce maternal mortality around the world. MSD is an ambitious, big-budget project and its goals fit well with the vision of the Synergist team.
Central to the Alliance for Maternal Health Equality’s mission is putting access to maternal healthcare on the map as an issue in its own right.
“Across Europe, when you look at the political agenda, pregnancy and safe motherhood is really not an issue in itself,” Brooke says. “Within the gender issue agenda, it’s a subtopic of subtopic. The same with migration: it’s a subtopic. So we want to connect the issue itself to the political agenda.”
Working with one of the world leading pharmaceutical companies MSD, also known as Merck in USA and Canada, led to a change of attitude for Brooke and others involved in the project. Key to the Alliance is that all partners will be involved in working towards its goals.
“I’ve seen many people, myself included, be very judgemental about big industry,” Brooke says. “But these suspicions can be misplaced. Usual practice is that an NGO takes money from an industry/institution for a project, then the industry has no input. I want to change that. Industry will fund project but also participate in it, as long as that’s done openly.”
Alongside MSD for Mothers, a network of partners are involved in the Alliance. These range from local, grassroots NGOs to EU-level organisations, both public and private. Healthcare professional societies and policy makers are equally involved.
“Many people we spoke to said they wanted to do something but didn’t know where to start,” Brooke says. “There was consensus that we have to consider safe motherhood and pregnancy as a priority. We had a very positive response to the Alliance from organisations working on the ground because there is a clear need.”