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Pittsburgh club aids Kenyan mothers-to-be who lack supplies

Natasha Lindstrom
| Sunday, Nov. 15, 2015, 10:10 p.m.
Richard Johnson, 57, of Highland Park returns from rural Kenya after delivering 750 birthing kits to Kisumu Medical and Education Trust in an effort by Zonta Club of Pittsburgh.
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Richard Johnson, 57, of Highland Park returns from rural Kenya after delivering 750 birthing kits to Kisumu Medical and Education Trust in an effort by Zonta Club of Pittsburgh.

Women who give birth in U.S. hospitals often pack a bag filled with items to ease the pains of delivery — soothing music, a memory book, a pair of comfy slippers.

In rural Kenya, women in labor may be turned away from hospitals unless they bring the most basic supplies — medical gloves, clean gauze, even a blade to sever the umbilical cord. Pregnant women who lack those essentials give birth on their own, heightening the risk that they and their newborns will die or suffer dangerous complications.

About 6,300 women in Kenya died during childbirth in 2013, for a rate of 400 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. By comparison, 1,200 women died giving birth in the United States in 2013, for a rate of 28 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, World Health Organization data show.

The Zonta Club of Pittsburgh has teamed with Alcoa to be part of a global push to equip poor women with life-saving birthing kits.

Richard Johnson, 57, of Highland Park recently returned from delivering 750 such kits abroad to Kisumu Medical and Education Trust, or K-MET, a nongovernmental organization focused on improving maternal, child and family health in Kenya's underserved areas.

The locals call them “mama kits,” says Monica Oguttu, K-MET's executive director. Those prepared in Pittsburgh contain gloves, soap, a square meter of clean plastic, gauze, umbilical ties and a clean blade in a sheath used for cutting the umbilical cord.

K-MET workers aim to get the donated birthing kits into the hands of women during their seventh month of pregnancy. They stress the importance of professionally attended births to Mother Superiors and to husbands, the decision-makers of many Kenyan families.

Between 2007 and 2014, more than half of Kenyan women gave birth without a skilled attendant, WHO data show.

“Some who live in poverty say, ‘I would like my wife to deliver in hospital, but I don't have all that is required,' ” Oguttu said. “Then we tell them, we say, ‘I'll give you a mama kit — this woman must deliver at the hospital.' ”

The goal is to improve infant mortality rates and health while lowering the chances of maternal deaths.

K-MET estimates that every 100 donated birthing kits can save up to 16 lives. The Zonta Club of Pittsburgh and Alcoa — with help from Rotary Club of Pittsburgh, Global Links and community volunteers — has donated more than 6,000 birthing kits to K-MET. The kits have also gone to women in Nepal, Malawi, Grenada, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic.

Johnson, an ordained minister, businessman and former trial attorney, said he valued his trip for the “beautiful and cultured” people he encountered along the way. He wants to help dispel misconceptions that Africans have about Americans, and vice versa once he returns home.

He recalled a recent day, for instance, when he had motorcycle trouble and came across a group of young Kisumu girls, who approached him warily and admitted they had never seen a white man before.

“We all spoke briefly, and then I was on my way,” Johnson said. “If I can represent a light-skinned American in a truthful way, behaving as a gentleman as I always do, I can contribute to a positive cultural exchange.”

Natasha Lindstrom is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-380-8514 or nlindstrom@tribweb.com.

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