New program aims to reduce birth-mortality rate for Alberta aboriginal mothers

Pregnant Stomach

A new program aimed at the maternal health needs of indigenous communities will seek to reduce the risk of death during childbirth.

“The death rate of aboriginal women here in Alberta is twice that of the general population and we find that unacceptable,” said Dr. Naveen Rao, lead for the program Merck for Mothers. “The unique challenges they face (include) the social determinants of health, such as housing, food and security, cultural insensitivity, lack of education … on the medical side there is obesity, hypertension, addiction.”

On Friday, Rao announced a $1-million grant that, along with $300,000 from Alberta Innovates, will go towards initiatives in Maskwacis, Little Red River Cree Nation and inner-city Edmonton. In collaboration with Alberta Health Services, the funding will be used for education, peer support in the weeks before and after birth, as well as improved care co-ordination and evaluation.

“There is room for both traditional teaching and western medicine to play a role in healthy pregnancies and childcare,” said Randy Littlechild, executive director of Maskwacis Health Services. “Every year we have approximately 200 to 300 births in our communities. … There are challenges Maskwacis women and children face — transportation is an issue, there’s a very high demand for this service.”

Dennis Laboucan, community services director for Little Red River Cree Nation, said staff is stretched too thin to reach all expectant mothers in the nation’s three communities.

“We are a remote community, our traditional ways are still intact, but they have been impacted by history,” he said, adding that there were 129 births in 2015. “We look forward to more staff funded by this program.”

Alberta has the third largest aboriginal population in Canada, with more than 220,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit people. Regardless of place of residence, the perinatal mortality rate for aboriginal women in Alberta is around seven in every 1,000 births, compared to around four in every 1,000 births in the non-aboriginal population.

Along with addressing needs in remote communities, the $1.3 million in funding will also go towards helping vulnerable expectant mothers living in inner-city Edmonton through an initiative dubbed Pregnancy Pathways. The program, launching next spring, will establish a 12-unit apartment building where homeless expectant mothers can live and access support services on site.

“Imagine being hungry for two, being homeless for two. Unfortunately, this is a reality for many in our community,” said Cecilia Blasetti, executive director of the Boyle McCauley Health Centre. She added that of the more than 100 women in Edmonton who find themselves in this situation every year, between 60 and 80 per cent are indigenous.

Alberta Health Services CEO Dr. Verna Yiu said Friday’s funding announcement offers a “glimmer of hope.”

“We’ve heard loud and clear from the AHS wisdom council of the struggles that (indigenous communities) face,” she said. “(It) goes to ensuring that pregnancy and childbirth for vulnerable women is a safe and healthy and joyful experience. … One we assume that everyone has, but in fact many do not.”

Written by: CLARE CLANCY

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