Hope on Wheels: Emergency Maternal Health Units Reach the Deepest Corners of the Philippines – Philippines


SAINT BERNARD, Philippines — “Our house was gone, we could smell the gasoline escaping from the fishing boats and the wind was howling. I wanted to run in the mountains with my two young children.”

Running away from home at seven months pregnant was not what Mariel, 30, had planned for her family during the Christmas festivities. But as Super Typhoon Rai slammed into the small fishing village of Saint Bernard in the southern Philippines’ Leyte province, it was her only option.

The third biggest storm to ever hit the northern hemisphere, Rai demolished homes across the islands, shattering trees and forcing hundreds of thousands of people to run for their lives. Nearly four months later, many people are still without stable housing or access to food or medical care: most health facilities remain devastated, others hang by a thread. Health personnel have no clinics to work in, while contraceptive supplies and medical equipment are sorely lacking.

UNFPA Executive Director, Dr Natalia Kanem, said after meeting some of the affected women and girls, “A record number of people around the world are displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance. Humanitarian crises not only disrupt communities, they also expose women and girls to higher levels of vulnerability. Disasters and conflicts deepen gender inequalities, with women and girls paying the heaviest price.

A Rolling Salute

The provision of sexual and reproductive health care can be dangerously compromised in a crisis setting, including antenatal and antenatal services, as infrastructure is destroyed and roads become impassable. Limited, if any, access to health services leads to increased maternal and newborn deaths, spikes in sexual violence and, as a new UNFPA report shows, soaring rates of unwanted pregnancies.

Increasingly anxious about giving birth in the middle of a disaster area, Mariel’s hopes were lifted when she spotted an unusual vehicle in town. “One day, a white truck was parked in the community, and someone told me that there were health services there. I didn’t believe them, but finally I went there, and my worries disappeared,” she said, relieved at the arrival of qualified health personnel and new medical equipment.

The white truck is a UNFPA-supported Women’s Health on Wheels vehicle, a mobile birthing facility deployed to hard-to-reach areas and during humanitarian emergencies. Mobile rapid response units are the default configuration when basic emergency obstetric and neonatal care services are interrupted. Based in the center of Saint-Bernard, the truck has become a beacon of survival and hope for many vulnerable women and girls in the community.

Mobile units are a key part of UNFPA response, which as of March 31 had reached nearly 14,000 women and girls in affected areas with sexual and reproductive health and protection services. This includes the distribution of dignity kits containing sanitary, menstrual and hygiene products, as well as the provision of emergency maternity tents and the establishment of safe spaces where survivors and those at risk of gender-based violence can seek help and support. In southern Leyte alone, UNFPA has so far supported more than 1,000 safe deliveries and provided more than 1,700 family planning consultations.

A crisis within the crisis

Observing the devastation wrought by the storm, Dr Kanem continued, “As the Philippines is one of the most crisis-prone countries – from conflict to earthquakes and typhoons – millions of the most vulnerable people, especially women and girls, face multiple levels of risk.”

It is estimated that 400 lives were lost during the typhoon and more than half a million displaced people, some 60,000 of whom have yet to return to their homes – if they still have them. More than 11 million people were affected by the storm; among them are 4 million women of childbearing age, 1.4 million adolescent girls and 250,000 currently pregnant women.

While the statistics are grim, Dr Kanem added that there is a solution – by listening to and investing in women. Their leadership and resilience bring communities together as they spearhead climate change mitigation and adaptation efforts.

On February 14, Mariel became the first woman to give birth in the mobile health unit. She told us she named her new daughter Heart Eunne Fae: Heart for being born on Valentine’s Day, and Eunne Fae as a tribute to UNFPA. When Dr. Kanem asked about his wish for Eunne Fae, Mariel replied, “A brighter sky, a roof over his head, and a better life than we have now. And live in a world where she can grow up fearless and become a girl who can bring change to our community.”

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