JFHC editor Penny Hosie talks about her experiences at the SLHT Spring Conference:

I went along to a midwifery conference earlier this week organised and hosted by South London Healthcare Trust (SLHT) midwives and what a revelation. Not only was the programme itself excellent (well done Vicky Coleman), but I was struck by the fact many people attending (predominantly midwives, but some obstetric doctors too) had taken leave from their own busy schedules to attend.

Donna Ockenden, Chief Midwife for SLHT, kicked off proceedings by presenting some stark statistics: 17 babies die EVERY DAY in the UK. She cited that 200,000 women are truamatised by birth and warned that many of the poor care statistics stem from London - a state of affairs which needs rectifying.  Next she weaved a fascinating account of how women fared in history, cataloguing the misery many of his Henry VIII's wives endured during childbirth - and we all know what happened to some of them because they couldn't produce an heir or displeased Henry in other ways. She also cited how children are read disturbing fairytales at night: often the children in these tales are orphans, most probably because their mothers died in childbirth.

The statistic that 5% of pregnant women are obese led nicely into an excellent talk by SLHT consultant obstetrician Sukrutha Veerareddy on morbid obesity -a term describing people who are 50-100% above their ideal body weight. Pregnant women who are morbidly obese not only require expensive specialist equipment many NHS trusts don't have, but highly specialist obstetric care. She presented figures which illustrate that these women have difficult pregnancies and their risk of a stillbirth is higher too. In a recent case she had encountered in Bromley, doctors from all round the country were called upon to advise upon the care of an obese pregnant woman whose weight was off the scale. Sadly, despite specialist advice and regular monitoring this woman had vastly increased in size during her pregnancy (despite protesting she was eating "healthier" foods) - and the sad outcome was that her much wanted baby died.

Sukrutha asked whether healthcare professionals should be far more direct with women about the effects obesity can have on their own health, pre-natally. It was in the child's interests too she argued, as babies born to obese mothers are more prone to hypertension, diabetes and other serious health problems. She proposed all obese women be directed to specialist obesity clinics so they could access the right help and dietetic support.

The next talk was exceptionally harrowing. Charismatic award winning film and documentary maker Nancy Durrel-McKenna highlighted her campaign work for the charity Safe Hands for Mothers.  This amazing charity, which she founded, aims to reduce maternal mortality and morbidity from pregnancy related causes, as well as protecting and promoting the health of newborns in developing countries. The charity does this through producing government and non governmental training and advocacy programmes.  Nancy powefully allows the real life victims of FGM (Female Genital Mutilation), child marriage, rape, multiple and life threatening pregnancies tell their stories.

The first film showed a young mother lying on the ground beside her breastfeeding baby. As she spoke it emerged she had been crippled through a process which started with bad FGM as a child, a harrowing loss of virginity (which led to her vagina being cut and butchered with a sharp razor blade) and the process of childbirth itself. She spoke matter of factly, saying she felt she was "not a person" and that she would never allow her own daughter to undergo such pain and suffering. Her own mother also poignantly spoke, saying how she had carried out these methods, as they had in turn been carried out for generations. However, Safe Hands had educated her and now she understood it was wrong to continue practicising these traditional methods on future generations.

Another film highlighted the importance of contraception. A pretty teenage girl of 15 admitted to having sex with 3 men, all of whom had professed love for her as well as promising marriage. She had become pregnant by one of them but all had refused to accept reponsibilty. Forced to have an abortion her vow was abstention. The importance of contraception was further conveyed by a woman who had had multiple pregnancies, but not all her children had lived. She eloquently spoke of how she wished she'd had access to contraception which, she stated, would have saved her much anguish and suffering..

The final film Nancy showed was of a young mother, gravely ill, attending the only emergency hospital in Sierra Leone with her husband. Harrowing footage showed the delivery: two stillborn babies pulled out by the attending midwife in an almost dispassionate fashion. Final haunting images were shown of the family carrying the babies' bodies out of hospital in two cardboard boxes. The mother died five hours later, pre-eclampsia the cause of death. 

Nancy's talk ended on an uplifting note when she showed how Safe Hands helps readdress health provision inequalities in poor and developing countries by funding solar powered mobile boxes, which health workers take along to remote towns and villages to educate people on the health problems and issues affecting them. Nancy said poverty and a "lack of education" were at the root cause of many of the problems she encounters.

If you'd like to watch Nancy's films or find out more about Safe Hands and various projects (including its work, building two birthing centres) please visit the website at www.safehands.org