The rise of C-section rates in many parts of the world has triggered a global debate on the use of C-sections, the ideal rate of C-section, and appropriateness of high rates in certain countries. In 1985 the World Health Organization (WHO) recommended a C-section rate of not more than 10-15%. In 2010, they withdrew that guideline and replaced it with a more general statement that, “There is no empirical evidence for an optimum percentage. What matters most is that all women who need caesarean sections receive them.” The WHO’s decision to not focus on a universal, evidence-based optimum rate makes sense in light of the difficulties of doing so but, without a specified rate, there is no easy benchmark by which to monitor and interpret the use and potential overuse of c-section deliveries.
When clinically indicated for complications during pregnancy or labor, C-sections greatly improve obstetric outcomes, which in turn improve maternal and child health outcomes. In many developing countries, women have inadequate access to emergency obstetric care leading to preventable maternal and perinatal morbidity and mortality. In such settings, it is essential to strengthen health systems and infrastructure to ensure that C-section services are provided when they are medically indicated and could save lives.
In populations with excessively high C-section rates, on the other hand, there is growing concern about the health and economic consequences when C-sections are performed for reasons other than medical necessity. A C-section is a major surgical intervention that should be carefully considered in light of associated risks that can increase maternal and perinatal morbidities, which include bleeding, infection, blood clots, and increased need for ICU care. C-sections can also have long-term consequences on child health, including increased risk of developing allergies and asthma. (1) Maternal mortality for women undergoing C-sections is four to ten times higher than for vaginal birth. A multi-country study carried out in Latin America indicated that an increase in rates of caesarean delivery is associated with increased use of antibiotics postpartum, greater severe maternal morbidity and mortality, and higher fetal and neonatal morbidity. (2) Another multi-country study carried out in Asia in 2007-8 showed that there was an increased risk of maternal mortality and severe morbidity in women who undergo C-section with no medical indication. (3) Furthermore, in low-income countries with an unmet need for C-section (where women who need C-sections are not receiving them due to inadequate access to obstetric care), the issue of resource drain is important: If C-sections are restricted to only clinical indications and not performed unnecessarily, resources would not be sapped from other sections of the health system.
Currently, the global C-section rate is about 15%, but there are huge variations in C-section rates across countries and regions in the world. A consistent increase has been seen in the rate of C-section deliveries in most developed countries and in many developing countries including India. Globally, China has the highest rate at an alarming 46% of births being C-section (3); Brazil follows behind at 37% (4). In the United States the rate has been steadily increasing in the past decade and is now at 30%, while in Scandinavian countries it hovers around 20%. In Asia, after China, Vietnam and Thailand have the highest rates with 36% and 34%, respectively. The lowest rate in Asia is Cambodia, with 15%. (3) Although India’s rate is not disturbingly high in the global context, its rate has spiked from 2.2% in 1992-3 to 18% today. Within India, the states of Kerala, Goa, and Andhra Pradesh have the highest rates. In West Bengal the rate rose from 3.3% in 1992-3 to 19% in 2009-10. (5)
There is also a large divide between urban and rural areas, and between public and private facilities. West Bengal as a whole has a C-section rate of 19%; the city of Kolkata’s rate is 33.5% while rural Malda District’s is 2.2%. In Kolkata as in most large Indian cities, the C-section rates in private hospitals are much higher (50% and up) than in public hospitals, which average about 12%. (6) This emerging trend is a classic example of inequalities in access to C-sections in developing countries: It means that in poor, rural areas where there is less access to emergency obstetric care, women who medically need C-sections may not be getting them, while women living in urban areas and going to private hospitals are getting C-sections that may be performed unnecessarily, causing unwarranted risk to the mother and baby.
The trend in rising C-section rates in India and other parts of the world is driven by many reasons factors including, but not limited to:
- Increase in facility-based deliveries and improved access to emergency obstetric care; improved surgical and anesthetic techniques
- Doctors’ preference for the procedure due to ease, timing, and financial incentive compared to vaginal delivery
- Women’s preference for the procedure to avoid long labor and delivery
- Over medicalization of childbirth process
- Lack of information on natural birth options for women
- Perception of safety of the procedure; casual attitudes about surgery and limited awareness about realities of surgery
- Increase in heavier women and older women giving birth
- Increase in multiples (twins, triplets, etc) due to fertility drugs and IVF
How do rising C-section rates affect Calcutta Kids?
Our beneficiaries at Calcutta Kids are very much affected by C-section trends in West Bengal, as their deliveries are taking place in government and private hospitals in Howrah. In the past five years, we have witnessed increasing rates of C-section for women who are participating in our program. In a preliminary analysis of data, our C-section delivery rate has increased from 10% in 2007 to 30.4% in 2012. There may be many contributing factors, including an increase in facility-based deliveries from 67% in 2005 to 90% in 2012. However, we are conducting further analysis to assess these trends and explore the reasons behind them.
Calcutta Kids is not involved in the childbirth process for our beneficiaries and we cannot directly affect any decisions made once a woman has been admitted to the facility, so we do not have any control over C-section rates among our beneficiaries. However, we can take advantage of opportunities during pregnancy to raise awareness about birth preparedness and help a woman understand what she can expect at the facility, including what decisions will be made once the birth process has begun.
Next week’s blog post will cover Calcutta Kids’ experience with facility deliveries and C-sections , followed by a blog post on our work with health workers and pregnant women on birth preparedness and facility delivery. -Danya Sarkar
- Mode of Delivery Is Associated With Asthma and Allergy Occurrences in Children. Muhammad T.Salam, MBBS, MS, Helene G. Margolis, PhD, Rob McConnell, MD, James A. McGregor, MD, Edward Avol, MS, Frank D. Gilliland, MD, PhD. Annals of Epidemiology, Volume 16, Issue 5, May 2006; 341–346.
- Caesarean delivery rates and pregnancy outcomes: the 2005 WHO global survey on maternal and perinatal health in Latin America. José Villar, Eliette Valladares, Daniel Wojdyla, Nelly Zavaleta, Guillermo Carroli, Alejandro Velazco, Archana Shah, Liana Campodónico, Vicente Bataglia, Anibal Faundes, Ana Langer, Alberto Narváez, Allan Donner, Mariana Romero, Sofi a Reynoso, Karla Simônia de Pádua, Daniel Giordano, Marius Kublickas, Arnaldo Acosta, for the WHO 2005 global survey on maternal and perinatal health research group. Lancet 2006; 367: 1819–29.
- Method of delivery and pregnancy outcomes in Asia: the WHO global survey on maternal and perinatal health 2007–08. Pisake Lumbiganon, Malinee Laopaiboon, A Metin Gülmezoglu, João Paulo Souza, Surasak Taneepanichskul, Pang Ruyan,Deepika Eranjanie Attygalle, Naveen Shrestha, Rintaro Mori, Nguyen Duc Hinh, Hoang Thi Bang, Tung Rathavy, Kang Chuyun, Kannitha Cheang, Mario Festin, Venus Udomprasertgul, Maria Julieta V Germar, Gao Yanqiu, Malabika Roy, Guillermo Carroli, Katherine Ba-Thike, Ekaterina Filatova, José Villar, for the World Health Organization Global Survey on Maternal and Perinatal Health Research Group. Lancet 2010; 375: 490–99.
- The Role of Nonclinical Factors in Cesarean Section Rates in Brazil. Kristine Hopkins and Ernesto Amaral. Population Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.
- Levels and Trends in Caesarean Births: Cause for Concern? Sancheeta Ghosh, K S James. Economic & Political Weekly January 30, 2010 vol xlv no 5.
- Telegraph article: To C or not to C?