Rates of infant and maternal mortality in indigenous communities are among the highest in the Americas, according to a new bulletin published by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
In its most recent edition, "Healing our Spirit Worldwide"—PAHO's bulletin on indigenous health—notes that national averages often mask significant regional differences in these rates, citing the examples of Bolivia, Honduras and Guatemala. While overall maternal mortality in Bolivia, for example, stands at 390 per every 100,000 live births, in the department of Potosí, which has a larger indigenous population, the figure climbs to 496 per 100,000.
In Honduras, departments with large indigenous populations—including Colón, Copán, Intibuca, Lempira and La Paz—have maternal mortality ranging from 190 to 255 per 100,000 live births, while the national average is 147. In Guatemala, maternal mortality among indigenous women is 83 percent higher than the national rate.
The bulletin cites a number of factors, many of them cultural, which underlie these differences. They include:
- Health workers' lack of understanding of and sensitivity to traditional cultural practices.
- Poor communication between health workers and patients.
- Lack of emphasis in health policies on the need to expand medical coverage in indigenous communities.
To address such problems, PAHO is working with municipal organizations in the department of Potosí to carry out community programs that involve midwives and community leaders in efforts to improve sanitary conditions during childbirth and to identify high-risk cases and assure they are properly referred.
In a separate article, Aymara leader Martha Gonzáles explains how cultural barriers can come into play when indigenous women seek health services.