ULAANBAATAR, Mongolia — Mongolia’s extreme winter conditions are preventing expectant mothers from reaching health facilities, putting their lives at risk. In response, UNFPA, the United Nations Population Fund, is supporting mobile medical teams that have brought life-saving care to women in isolated districts in 12 provinces.
Last week, a team in Khovd Province rescued a herder who had gone into labour in her tent. Heavy snow blocked the way to the nearest hospital, some 30 kilometres away. “It took us 10 hours to bring her to the district centre,” said Dr. Davaabal, chief gynaecologist at the Khovd Health Department. “Luckily, there were no complications and the woman gave birth to a healthy child.”
A drought last summer, followed by heavy winter snow, has created a multiple natural disaster that the Mongolians call a “dzud”. Two and a half million livestock have died of starvation, threatening the livelihoods of many nomadic herder families. Snow, which was as deep as 1.2 metres in some areas, has closed roads and made travel almost impossible.
Bringing health care to Mongolia’s nomadic population is a challenge, even in normal conditions. The country’s population of fewer than 3 million people is spread out over a vast territory of steppes, deserts and mountains.
The disaster may have led to at least one maternal death already. In Bulgan district, Khovd province, snow delayed a team responding to a call for emergency obstetric care; the woman died before they arrived.
Besides supporting the mobile teams, UNFPA has provided reproductive health and hygiene supplies to 6,000 vulnerable women and their families in some of the hardest-hit provinces.
“The needs of pregnant women and newborns cannot wait until normal times. That is why mobile teams are needed to reach them where they are,” said Ms. Argentina Matavel, UNFPA Representative in Mongolia.
With provincial maternity hospitals hard to reach, more births are taking place at smaller district hospitals, leading to shortages of essential medicines, equipment and supplies. UNFPA, in close coordination with UNICEF, WHO and other organizations, is providing midwifery kits to 80 local hospitals. This allows medical staff to conduct normal deliveries and, if there are complications, to stabilize patients before sending them to the provincial hospital. UNFPA has received $242,000 from the UN’s Central Emergency Relief Fund to conduct these activities.
The Ministry of Health and UNFPA are discussing the longer-term implications of the crisis and preparing recovery activities. Pledged assistance from Australia will enable the Fund to provide psychosocial and livelihood support to female-headed households.