Maternal Health Heroes: Interview With Christy Turlington Burns #MHHSS


We are excited to publish our fifth interview in our Maternal Health Heroes Summer Series with Christy Turlington Burns, Founder of Every Mother Counts. Throughout the summer we will speak with some of the most notable maternal health advocates in the world ahead of the Global Maternal Newborn Health Conference that will be held in Mexico City between October 18 – 21, 2015. Follow the conversation at #MHHSS.

C_TURLINGTON-14 Christy Turlington Burns is a mother, social entrepreneur, model, and founder of Every Mother Counts. As a result of her global advocacy work she was named one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2014, Glamour Magazine’s Woman of The Year in 2013, and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative Minds in 2013.  Christy is a member of the Harvard Medical School Global Health Council, an advisor to the Harvard School of Public Health Board of Dean’s Advisors and on the advisory Board of New York University’s Nursing School. She holds a BA from NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies and has studied Public Health at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health. A four-time marathon finisher, Christy resides in New York City where she lives with her husband, filmmaker Edward Burns, and their two children.

Jennifer James: We are impressed that you are helping to spread the word about maternal health and mortality in the Unites States. When did it occur to you that there is a maternal health crisis in America?

Christy Turlington Burns: Soon after experiencing a childbirth complication following the delivery of my first child, I learned that hundreds of thousands of pregnancy and childbirth-related deaths occur around the world every year.  Yet, up to 98 percent of those deaths are preventable. Once I knew about these shocking statistics, I had to know why this was happening. This led me to make a documentary film, “No Woman, No Cry,” which examines the state of maternal health in four countries Tanzania, Guatemala, Bangladesh and the United States. While making the film, I learned that while 99% of these global deaths occur in developing countries, we lose three women per day in the U.S. too.

Every Mother Counts was born as a result of the film and since 2010 we have been educating the public about maternal health challenges and solutions and offering ways for more people to participate. Through raising awareness and funds we are providing resources to help make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother. Currently, we are supporting seven programs that improve access to quality and timely maternal healthcare around the world, including two in the U.S. (Commonsense Childbirth in Florida, and Ancient Song Doula Services in New York).

This fall, EMC is releasing a short documentary film series, Giving Birth in America, to examine some of the contributing factors that have made the U.S. one of just eight countries with a rising maternal mortality rate.  The film follows the stories of pregnant women and their healthcare providers in New York, Montana and Florida. We hope these films will generate awareness and action among American citizens who have the voice, choice and power to change this.

Jennifer James: From the launch of Every Mother Counts we noticed that you and your team have used documentaries to spread awareness about maternal health and mortality. How does that documentary approach heighten people’s awareness about maternal health, especially for those who really don’t know about or understand the problem?

Christy Turlington Burns: Strong communications and storytelling have always been central to EMC’s mission to raise awareness that maternal mortality is a solvable global crisis. Documentaries give a face and voice to situations individuals may not be aware of and help them with the issue. We tell stories of women from around the world who have been impacted by a pregnancy or childbirth related crisis. We also share the stories of healthcare providers who are working to overcome significant challenges to create the best maternal health outcomes with an emphasis on what is possible with the right support.

Each film is unique and presents a different slant on the global maternal health issue.  Our films have been viewed by millions of people all of whom have become that much more educated about how to improve maternal health to reduce preventable deaths at birth.

Jennifer James: Through your many travels to visit programs that save the lives of mothers and children what are some of the low-cost interventions that you see work time and time again? What would you like to see more of in low-resource areas that will save the lives of more mothers?

Christy Turlington Burns: There are some remarkable solutions out there, many of them very low-cost and simple. For example, magnesium sulfate is commonly used as part of the treatment for preeclampsia. There is a lot of attention around technology and innovation, which is great but in the meantime we need to do a better job scaling existing solutions.

Our grant portfolio is focused on addressing leading barriers to critical care; lack of transportation, supplies and education. We support programs that provide simple solutions that directly improve maternal health outcomes.  For example, in Uganda, we help women access maternal healthcare by providing vouchers for rides to access prenatal, delivery and postpartum care.  In Haiti, we are supporting the education of skilled birth attendants so that more mothers deliver safely.  In India, we help educate women about their rights to healthcare.  We also provide solar power and education to clinics in Tanzania and Malawi. In Nepal, we support partners who are providing supplies and solar power to birth centers in areas affected by the recent earthquake. And in the U.S., we’re providing prenatal education and healthcare to low-income women in Florida and helping provide doula services to women in New York.

Jennifer James: Now that the MDGs are close to expiring, what do you believe organizations, governments, civil society, and everyday people can do to reach the Sustainable Development Goal of 70 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births? Do you believe this goal is achievable? Why or why not?

Christy Turlington Burns: I think individuals, organizations and leaders can impact tremendous change if they commit to achieving these global goals.  Establishing a consensus in the form of goals and targets on the most urgent and pervasive issues has certainly helped many countries and individuals strive to achieve them. There are common threads linking our global health threats, most of which are related to extreme poverty.

Reducing maternal mortality isn’t as simple as providing the right tools, treatments and providers to underserved communities. Just look at the U.S. where we have more healthcare providers and spend more money on healthcare than any other country, yet we rank 60th in the world in terms of maternal health outcomes. Poor maternal health and maternal mortality are very complicated issues that have to do with the status of women in the world.  As long as women continue to have unequal rights, opportunities and representation, I believe we’ll continue to see mothers die.  That’s where we need to do the most work.  Every Mother Counts provides grants to address specific barriers but we also provide information about the wide network of issues that either support or detract from maternal health.

Jennifer James: What is in store for Every Mother Counts for the remainder of the year? What can fellow mothers do to help further EMC’s cause?

Christy Turlington Burns: We are excited about our current strategy to sustain our awareness and fund-raising to improve maternal health for women all around the world.  We are very focused on building our community and making regular enhancements to everymothercounts.org to make it a more dynamic platform. We are offering more ways to learn and engage through events, product partnerships and races all over the world. We are also continuing to produce educational content, films, and materials to empower more maternal health advocates.

All of these actions can help us achieve our mission to make pregnancy and childbirth safe for every mother.

Visit Every Mother Counts at everymothercounts.org.

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