Lenka Benova

Advocating for pregnant women before, during, and after a pandemic

Story by Katy Ibsen
Photograph courtesy of Lenka Benova

As a professor of maternal and reproductive health at the Institute of Tropical Medicine in Antwerp, Belgium, Lenka Benova, BSBA ’02, is accustomed to long odds.

For decades, the 2013 Suffolk 10 Under 10 alumni honoree has worked to improve care for women during pregnancy and childbirth in low-resource communities and in countries that lack reliable healthcare systems. She has worked to upgrade facilities, provide more training, and increase outreach and support. If progress was slower than she liked, and not always steady, at least it was being made.

Then came COVID-19.

For the past year, Benova watched as the pandemic decimated decades of progress on maternal health. Pregnant women with already-limited access to healthcare were told not to come to facilities overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients, or were prevented from traveling by lockdown restrictions and roadblocks.

Benova also saw an increase in stillbirths, because even when pregnant women were able to get care it often came too late, especially for higher-risk pregnancies. “Every country has failed at protecting maternal health services, which women require 24/7 when they’re pregnant and giving birth,” she says.

As they work to rebuild these services, Benova and her colleagues are also analyzing how and where systems failed. This work is critical: It could provide the foundation for an improved response in future pandemics, as well as a strong case for better pregnancy healthcare worldwide.

“I didn’t think things were going to fall apart as much as they did,” she says. “But you can’t work in this field and be pessimistic.” She points to a facility in Nigeria where a patient, struggling with both COVID-19 and asthma, spent close to two weeks on oxygen following a cesarean section. To make sure the new mother didn’t run out of oxygen, which had to be manually administered, a technician slept next to her for 11 days. “There’s a lot of resilience,” Benova says.“People keep pushing to provide good care.”

Benova’s introduction to public health came not long after graduating from Suffolk, when she joined Doctors Without Borders (MSF) as a financial coordinator in Nigeria. After earning a master’s degree in Middle East studies at the American University of Cairo, she continued her work with MSF in South Sudan and the Palestinian territories.She later moved to London to pursue her master’s degree in demography and a PhD in population studies, focusing on how people seek healthcare—and how their socioeconomic status impacts the kind of care they can access and receive.

After seeing the fallout from 2020, Benova believes the way forward is to focus on organizing at the local level. When issues around pregnancy and the pandemic began to arise, she says, it was women’s groups, nongovernmental organizations, and human rights coalitions that advocated for maternal healthcare.

Benova sees the potential for all women, pregnant or not, as well as their partners, to engage in local organizing. In the U.S., advocates could be patient groups affiliated with a hospital or provider. “Those are very powerful ways to affect the provision and quality of care,” she says.

Lenka Benova, BSBA ’02

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