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Ethiopia to train medics in childbirth surgeries

African country desperately needs more trained to assist difficult births.

Malefia Gebretensaye fills out paperwork at the Maianbessa Health Post in northern Ethiopia on September 4, 2009. Malefia is one of 30,000 health extension workers the Ethiopian government has placed in health posts across the country to provide basic care. (Hanna Ingber Win/Huffington Post)

Hanna Ingber Win, the Huffington Post's World Editor, was recently invited by the U.N. Population Fund to visit its maternal health programs in Ethiopia, which has one of the world's worst health care systems. In the U.S., a woman has a 1 in 3,418 chance of dying from complications due to pregnancy, childbirth or unsafe abortion. In Ethiopia, a woman has a  1 in 7 chance of dying. Here is a piece about what she learned on her trip.

MEKELLE, Ethiopia — The white tile floors in the Ayder Referral Hospital in Mekelle, a large city in northern Ethiopia, look so clean they practically sparkle. Unlike the maternity ward in Jimma that reeks of human waste and sickness, this hospital smells sterile and clean.

Nurses gather at their station writing down their patients' information in orderly files, and a small handful of visitors wait patiently in the corridors. The multistory hospital with a manicured garden and televisions in the hallways looks so modern and fancy it could easily belong in New York. 

There's just one problem: many of its new beds go empty. 

The hospital, which opened in September 2008, does not have enough doctors or medical equipment for the facility to be fully used. Of the 450 beds in the hospital, only about 65 percent can be filled. 

"We aren't serving the numbers we are supposed to serve because of the lack of staff," says Dr. Amanuel Gessessew, an associate professor of gynecology/operations and the hospital's sole gynecologist. 

Ethiopia has one physician for every 38,000 people. The lack of medical professionals — a result of not enough trained medical students and an inability to retain Ethiopian doctors — has resulted in a health care system that ranks among the worst in the world.

"This government has failed at the very important task of training the professionals," says Dr. Beyene Petros, chairman of the opposition United Ethiopian Democratic Forces party and a member of the Ethiopian House of People's Representatives. "You can put up huge buildings, but if you don't have a program to properly train and maintain the manpower, what's the value?"

The Ayder Hospital, which serves as the one referral hospital for 4 million people in northern Ethiopia, has only 14 doctors including two internists, one surgeon, one pediatrician, one gynecologist and nine general practitioners. To be fully operational, Dr. Amanuel says the hospital should have at the very least five specialists and six general practitioners in each department. 

"We need more doctors, more educated doctors with specialties and more equipment," he says as we stand near the nurse's station. 

I ask what types of procedures the hospital cannot perform due to lack of equipment, and Dr. Amanuel rattles off so many that I get lost. I hand him my notebook, and he jots down some examples: endoscopy, laparoscopy, hysteroscopy, colposcopy, colonoscopy, radiotherapy.