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We’ve had a baby born on the side of the road, another on the floor of a midwife’s office, while another mother had to be flown to Dunedin Hospital leaving her husband to drive their 3-hour-old baby in the car.

The Southern District Health Board’s handling of recent issues, and its 10-month implementation of its “Integrated Primary Maternity System of Care” review has been very disappointing.

There are numerous instances of poor communication between the board, midwives and the local community, we’ve got emergency maternity hubs found not to be fully equipped, and a board which seems not to hear local concerns.

I have been working on this issue on behalf of the Upper Clutha community for many months now. I’ve held meetings with mothers and midwives, talked to the Southern DHB about improving services and written several letters to the Health Minister.

Last week I also wrote an open letter to the Prime Minister and appealed to her to help this community.

My fear is that the unique and particular health issues faced by rural communities are just not being understood.

The Upper Clutha is one of the most remote areas in the country. Mothers have no access to a local birthing unit, the area’s maternity hub, promised by the Southern DHB 10 months ago, is yet to eventuate and it’s a three and-a-half hour drive to the nearest base hospital.

Wanaka maternity services are under huge pressure as more young families move into the area and it’s only thanks to good luck and the goodwill of the area’s midwives that a tragedy has been averted up until now.

The Southern DHB has not done much to support these women, suggesting that they should just get themselves to their nearest base hospital prior to the birth of their baby.

This of course fails to take into account the unpredictability of the arrival of newborn babies and doesn’t consider the costs in accommodation, and possibly childcare for older siblings, while these mothers wait for their baby to come.

CEO Chris Fleming has also suggested that labouring mothers go to the area’s Maternal and Child hub.

This of course is difficult because there is no hub in Wanaka, with the board only announcing last week that it had found a location, but that the hub would not be up and running until January next year – six months away.

Obviously this lack of services is unsatisfactory, with many young mothers worried about the future and yet the Southern DHB doesn’t appear to understand the severity of the situation. That’s why I’ve appealed to the Prime Minister to provide more support for local mothers and babies.

This community has been campaigning for change for some time. Last year I presented a 3843-signature petition to parliament – signed by almost half of the town’s population - seeking the creation of a sustainable model for rural community midwifery in the Wanaka region.

This shows a massive amount of support for these issues and the Government should be taking notice of this.

Ironically one of the key campaigners for improved Wanaka maternity services, Kristi James, is the same women who was forced to give birth in her midwife’s office last week.

She is a brave, passionate women who has fought long and hard for young mothers in her community, but was herself a victim of the inadequate maternity services on offer.

Wanaka families have never been happy with the Southern DHB’s maternity plans and have consistently asked that their proposed maternal hub be upgraded to a full birthing unit.

That’s because a hub is only half of the solution – it’s not intended as a place for birthing, unless there is an emergency, with its primary objective to provide ante and postnatal support.

This is why the Lumsden community is so up-in-arms about the downgrade of its maternity centre to a maternal hub. People know that these hubs are just a fall-back, with the real birthing facilities located elsewhere.    

All the indicators point to Wanaka needing access to a full birthing unit in the future.

The Southern DHB has access to Statistics NZ data showing that the number of birth age women in Central Otago, including Wanaka, is set to increase between 2018 and 2043, resulting in a projected 17-18 percent rise in live births.  

I think the Southern DHB and the Government have dropped the ball here, failing to deliver appropriate and safe maternity services to both Upper Clutha and Northern Southland mothers.

These communities have lost confidence in the services on offer and as one midwife recently put it, the situation is like a ticking time bomb. 

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