Women’s health in Africa – a pressing human rights isue

Women’s health in Africa – a pressing human rights isue
Sandra Orta, General Manager for South Africa & Sub-Saharan Africa of Roche

Sandra Orta, General Manager for South Africa & Sub-Saharan Africa at Roche shares her views on the value of diagnostics in Fertility/Pregnancy and Preeclampsia in Africa.  

“August is Women’s Month, and as we examine global women’s issues more closely, we are reminded of the topic of women’s health in Africa – a subject that is increasingly being framed by the vital role that diagnostics plays in ensuring that long-term health across the continent improves and is preserved.

Improving health is central to fulfilling the immense potential of the African continent, yet millions of people face obstacles at every step of their health journey. 11-14

Africa’s harsh reality 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), maternal health – or the health of women during pregnancy, childbirth and the postpartum period and reproductive health – is a human rights issue.11 Across the African continent, there are considerable gaps in maternal health interventions like antenatal care. While southern Africa reported almost universal coverage in 2010, about one third of pregnant women in in West Africa did not receive antenatal care visits.11

The high number of maternal deaths in Africa highlights the gap between rich and poor. Almost all maternal deaths (99%) occur in developing countries and more than half of these deaths occur in sub-Saharan Africa, and the biggest risks to women during pregnancy are severe bleeding after birth, infection after childbirth and preeclampsia.11 These conditions are treatable when they are diagnosed in time. In fact, the reality is, most maternal deaths are preventable.11 Access to antenatal care with adequate diagnostics systems can prevent serious – or fatal – complications.

UNICEF cites two major factors that affect a woman’s chances of surviving childbirth: access to adequate healthcare during pregnancy and access to assisted birth, with the help of a skilled birth attendant.12 Adequate antenatal care can help women prepare for delivery and understand warning signs of complications such as preeclampsia during pregnancy and childbirth.12

Why preeclampsia matters 

Preeclampsia is a serious multi-system complication of pregnancy, occurring in 3-5 % of pregnancies, and it is one of the leading causes of maternal and perinatal morbidity and mortality worldwide.1-3

The condition is the new-onset of hypertension that develops after 20 weeks of gestation. How it presents from patient to patient can vary tremendously, making prediction and diagnosis difficult.1-3 

Analysing placental samples plays an important role in early detection of preeclampsia and early and precise diagnosis of ­preeclampsia can lead to effective ­clinical management and improved ­outcome for both mother and child.4-7

First trimester screening aids in the diagnosis of preeclampsia, which in turn provides a complete solution for preeclampsia throughout pregnancy. If preeclampsia is detected and appropriately managed before the onset of convulsions (eclampsia) and other life-threatening complications, administering drugs such as magnesium sulphate can lower a woman’s risk of developing eclampsia.15

The true value of diagnostics 

Advanced screening and diagnostic tests also empowers couples and clinicians to make decisions – from pregnancy planning to birth. Every mother-to-be hopes for a healthy baby and concerns such as infertility, preeclampsia and Down syndrome often arise. Advanced diagnostic tests can  predict, diagnose and manage many of these conditions. Fertility issues, for example, are common and often treatable, affecting one in six couples globally. 8

These and other uncertainties of pregnancy can be relieved by diagnostics from pregnancy through to birth. This drives the case that diagnostic testing should be available to all throughout pregnancy, as clinicians can use diagnostics to monitor infants and pregnant women for a number of avoidable complications.

Empowerment through learning 

One of the greatest healthcare challenges for Africa is not developing diagnostic tools or providing treatments, but having enough trained healthcare workers to manage these tools effectively.9

With the ultimate diagnostics end goal in mind, Roche opened the Roche Scientific Campus in Johannesburg, in 2012, in order to provide certified training courses for lab technologists and engineers and to educate healthcare professionals and scientists on health and scientific topics. The facility is a self-contained laboratory for tissue diagnostics and sequencing.

Our goal is to continue to strengthen training for diagnostics workers in Africa. We want to improve laboratory services, including certification courses for pathologists and molecular diagnostics. Ultimately, every African woman has the right to receive sustainable world-class healthcare for a prosperous future”. 16


  1. Verlohren, S., et al. (2012). Am J Obstet Gynecol 206(1), e1-8
  2. erlohren, S., et al. (2010). Am J Obstet Gynecol 202(161), e1-11
  3. Verlohren, S., et al. (2014). Hypertension 63(2), 346-352
  4. Hund, M., et al. (2014). BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth 14, 324
  5. Zeisler, H., et al. (2016). N Engl J Med 374(1), 13-22
  6. Hund, M., et al. (2015). Hypertens Pregnancy 34(1), 102-115
  7. Klein, E., et al. (2014). PLoS ONE 11(5), e0156013
  8. European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. https://www.eshre.eu/Press-Room/Resources.aspx (Last accessed March 2018)
  9. https://www.roche.com/research_and_development/what_we_are_working_on/womens-health.htm
  10. https://diagnostics.roche.com/global/en/products/params/elecsys-sflt-1-plgf-preeclampsia.html
  11. https://www.afro.who.int/health-topics/maternal-health (last accessed July 2021)
  12. https://data.unicef.org/topic/gender/maternal-health-gender/ (last access July 2021)
  13. https://sdgcafrica.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/sdgca-africa-2030-report.pdf
  14. https://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/december-2016-march-2017/dying-lack-medicines
  15. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17099328/
  16. https://globalhealthprogress.org/collaboration/strengthening-diagnostics-capabilities-in-africa/

References sourced from (9-16)