July 6, 2010
Dharamsala Summer Program 2010
Women’s Health Group
Maternal and Infant Mortality in the Tibetan Community
Maternity is a universal experience. Women around the world endure the joys and
hardships of conception, gestation, and eventually, birth. Unfortunately, not every
pregnancy is perfect. Yearly, over a half a million women die worldwide from
complications relating to pregnancy and childbirth, 99% of which are in developing
countries, and nearly 8 million infants die before they can reach their one-month birthday
(Dickerson et al. 2010). These harrowing statistics illustrate the dire need to examine
more closely the causes and consequences of high maternal and infant mortality rates in
Tibet maintains some of the highest maternal and infant mortality rates in the
world (Adams et al. 2005). These rates are hard to measure accurately, as the Tibetan
community is scattered across a remote landscape and has much of the information
censored by the Chinese Government, but it is estimated that anywhere from 9% to 30%
of infants die before they can reach their first birthday (Craig 2009). In contrast, the
infant mortality rate is only .67% in the United States (World Bank, World Development
Indicators 2010). Though these statistics vary and are far from precise, they all point to a
high rate of infant death. Maternal mortality rates are also extremely high in the Tibetan
population. Though not nearly as high as the infant mortality rates, the maternal mortality
rate has been reported as .4%, in relation to the much lower .01% in the United States
(Craig 2009). In their native Tibet, women must fight the physical complications of
pregnancy, the stress of the harsh environment, the lack of adequate prenatal and
postnatal care, limited access to emergency care, and poor nutrition (Dickerson et al.
2010). This paper will explore selected Tibetan medical practices that are followed
during pregnancies, examine the contributors to the high maternal and infant mortality
rates of the Tibetan community, and investigate whether scientific modernization in the
modern exile community has affected these mortality rates at all.
For all of Tibet’s troubles with high mortality rates, the ancient religious and
medical cultures have many lengthy recorded traditions concerning pregnancy and
childbirth. Tibetan beliefs and practices surrounding maternity are often viewed through
the lens of the dominant Buddhist culture and native Tibetan medical system. The
Tibetan Buddhist perspective is greatly entwined with Tibet’s medical system, and
governs many of the ideas about pregnancy and motherhood (Craig 2009). There are
several basic Buddhist concepts that are applied to the process of conception and birth.
Fundamental to the Buddhist philosophy is the idea of a cyclical existence, or samsara.
Any birth or death is considered to be part of this larger cycle. The cycle has no
beginning, and consists of many beginningless namshes, or consciousnesses. When a
being dies, its consciousness enters the bardo state, an in between state between the past
and future life. This bardo state lasts for up to 49 days, when the consciousness finds its
future parents, sees them in sexual union, and joins with the father’s sperm to eventually
fertilize the mother’s ovum or joins with the ovum itself. Buddhists consider the moment
the bardo consciousness enters the womb to be the moment of conception, at the union of
the sperm and the egg. According to Buddhist traditions, this bardo consciousness retains
its karma between lives. Karma is another fundamental Buddhist concept—one’s past
actions will define how one is to be reborn in the next life. It is therefore a central
concept to the idea of pregnancy, especially with complicated pregnancies, because the
Tibetan medical system believes that many of the complications that arise during a
pregnancy come from either the bardo consciousness or the mother having bad karma
(Arya 2010). Complications such as miscarriage or maternal death may arise from this
poor karma resulting from poor actions in past lives. Bad karma cannot be altered by any
medicinal practices (Geshe Tobgyal la 2010). Another karmic concept is the idea of
karmic compatibility between the mother, father, and bardo consciousness. For
conception to even occur, these karmic connections must be positive. Without a favorable
karmic connection between the parents and the bardo consciousness, conception may not
occur or the mother may not carry to term, resulting in a stillbirth or a miscarriage (Arya
Tibetan medical texts like The Four Tantras are quite explicit in describing
embryology. The bardo consciousness, according to these texts, can enter the father or
the mother during intercourse and become one with the father’s sperm or mother’s ovum.
The union of the sperm, the egg, and the consciousness is what constitutes the beginning
of life. The physical body of the fetus goes on to develop in accordance with the five
basic elements: earth, wind, water, fire, and space. These elements, which come from the
mother’s nutrition, are responsible for the different aspects of the human body during its
development. The fetus then goes through a very detailed growth process in utero. Any
disruption to the five elements can disturb development of the fetus. This balance of the
five elements is the mother’s responsibility to maintain through her diet and behavior.
The texts go on to describe several obstacles that may arise in delivery, such as blood
loss, breech birth, or the subtle wind element Thursel-rlung malfunctioning in inducing
normal labor (Arya 2010).
The centuries-old Tibetan medical tradition is highly intertwined with the
Buddhist beliefs of the people (Khangkar 1986). When it comes to the care of a pregnant
woman, Tibetan tradition dictates that she will first consult a lama, a Buddhist teacher,
and may perform some of the religious rituals prescribed by the medical texts for a
healthy pregnancy and a short labor. The lama can also help protect the mother from any
malevolent spirits that may attack and harm her or the fetus (Adams et al. 2005). She then
may go on to consult an amchi, a Tibetan doctor, who will assess her condition via the
traditional Tibetan methods. One such method is pulse diagnosis, through which the
doctor can tell the state of health of the fetus and of the mother. Natural medicines may
be prescribed according to the Tibetan medical texts, or the mother may be instructed to
avoid certain foods that would aggravate her existing conditions or to complete certain
religious rituals. Each person has a different balance of the elements and a different body
composition, so therefore, there is no standard treatment regimen given to every
expecting mother. Each woman is given a different regimen according to her personal
conditions and balance of the elements. In this way, Tibetan medicine does not have a
standardized system of prenatal care in the same way that the West does. Prenatal care
exists solely of individualized diet plans and behavioral restrictions according to the
mother’s personal health as assessed by a Tibetan doctor. There are several general things
that the Tibetan medical texts list to avoid doing during pregnancy, and are what the
medical texts describe as “the factors for the disintegration of the womb, fetal death, and
the drying of the womb”. These include activities such as engaging in sexual activity,
consuming spicy foods, overexerting the self, taking non-physician recommended
medications, consuming food that acts as a constipating agent or laxative, losing too
much blood via bloodletting treatments, and sleeping during the day. Other than these
behavioral instructions, there is no standard prenatal diet or care (Gyamtso 2010).
It is not in the Tibetan tradition to have a professional birth attendant present at
the birth itself. Women typically give birth at home, either with the assistance of a female
relative, the husband, or equally as often, alone (Craig 2009). Though this practice is
changing in light of the sudden modernization that has been forced on Tibet in the past 50
years, solo birthing is still practiced by many Tibetan women. In Lhasa, the modernized
capital of Tibet where many hospitals are available, it is estimated that 66% of women
still deliver at home (Dickerson et al. 2010). Though there is no amchi present at the birth
itself, the amchi will often prescribe herbal medications like Agar35 and Shije11 to be
taken alternatively with warm black tea to help with labor. These medications are
believed to shorten contractions, relax tensions, and control the descendent thursel-rlung
(Arya 2010). The rlung energy is known as one of the three humors of the body that
Tibetan medicine recognizes, and can be equated with wind. Specifically, the thursel-
rlung wind is located around the genitals, and is responsible for urination, defecation,
menstruation, ejaculation, and uterine contractions. Tibetan medical beliefs state that this
thursel-rlung can be disturbed by the fear and pain of labor, and this can lead to a
malfunction of the rlung. If this occurs, Tibetan medicine considers this to be a cause of
delayed labor, as the uterine contractions are controlled by this humor. The Agar35 and
Shije11 are intended to aid in avoiding this malfunction and the complication of delayed
labor. Amchis often prescribe Shije6 as well, an herbal medicine intended to clean the
uterus and expel the placenta after the baby has been born (Arya 2010).
The rationale for having women give birth alone is consistent with the traditional
Tibetan beliefs. There are many cultural reasons surrounding the aversion to hospitals
and presence of others at the birth. Expecting Tibetan mothers have a fear of hospitals
because of the presence of strangers and spirits associated with death during the
spiritually vulnerable time for the baby. It is believed that infants are much more
susceptible to spirit attacks than adults are, and so the mother would seek to avoid any
such place where the infant may be exposed to these evil spirits, like a hospital, where
deaths occur daily. However, naturally, these hospitals would be where the trained
professionals are (Adams et al. 2005). In addition to the fear of hospitals, delivering
mothers often avoid having others present at the birth to prevent them from becoming
contaminated with a polluting substance call the grib. The grib is associated with the
blood of childbirth and other unclean things like feces, and is a potent spiritual toxin.
Therefore, many families seek to isolate the mother during the birth to avoid spreading
the grib to other people assisting with the birth. Sometimes there will be a woman with
birthing experience or the husband present to cut the cord, but these people must be
ritually cleansed after the birth to remove the pang grib of childbirth (Daniel and Keyes
1983). The knife used to cut the cord is traditionally not washed beforehand, and is only
cleansed afterwards ritually to remove the grib. In addition to not wanting to pollute
others, it is believed that the grib can pollute and offend the protector spirits of a
household. To avoid this, many mothers will deliver in an enclosed tent in the house,
away from the hearth where the protector deities reside, or even outside in an animal pen
or enclosure (Craig 2009). This lack of sanitation may lead to later infections and
complications. These beliefs are all grounded in centuries of tradition, but because of the
inherently isolated birthing conditions, if a traumatic complication occurs during a
pregnancy, little can be done.
There are several common pregnancy complications that often arise in the Tibetan
population and that could lead to maternal or infant death. Both Tibetan medical texts
(Craig 2009) and modern epidemiological research in Tibet suggest that some of the most
common maternal and fetal complications include preeclampsia, hemorrhage, post-
partum hemorrhage, fetal growth restriction, infection, and obstructed labor (Miller et al.
2007). These studies only are able to survey those women who do go to hospitals, and
cannot account for those women who deliver at home. These pregnancy complications
are not unique to Tibetan women, but the environmental conditions of Tibet are likely to
exacerbate many of these complications, leading to the higher rates of maternal and infant
death that Tibet experiences (Smulian 2010).
Preeclampsia is recognized as a common disease across human populations. It is
considered to be a disease of the placenta that is associated with dangerously elevated
blood pressure, swelling, headaches, and abdominal pain. There are many theories as to
its cause, including poor nutrition, decreased oxygen supply to the placenta,
cardiovascular changes, and genetic predisposition. Preeclampsia affects on average
between 3 and 7% of all pregnancies worldwide, and is a leading cause of maternal and
infant death. In Tibet, a large Lhasa-based study in 2007 of 1121 hospital deliveries
showed that 19% of women were preeclamptic, which is much higher than the worldwide
rate. The higher prevalence of preeclampsia in the Tibetan population is unusual and has
several possible explanations. First, the high altitude of the Tibetan plateau results in less
oxygen in the air, which means that the mother takes in less oxygen to be transferred
across the placenta to the developing fetus. This chronic oxidative stress can lead to
inflammation and may contribute to the development of preeclampsia (Smulian 2010).
Second, the Tibetan population is often malnourished. Two key nutritional items that
have been linked by Western research to the prevention of preeclampsia are calcium and
vitamin D. Calcium is an essential ingredient in the maintenance of blood flow, in this
case to the uterus. If a mother were calcium deficient, as many Tibetans are due to poor
diet, this would lead to decreased blood flow to the uterus and therefore less oxygen
being transmitted to the placenta and fetus (Preeclampsia Foundation 2010). Vitamin D
deficiency has been shown to lead to a greatly increased rate of preeclampsia as well
(Bodnar et al. 2007). Much of the Tibetan population is vitamin D deficient, either
because of poor diet or minimal sun exposure due to the heavy traditional clothing. The
nomadic population of Tibet was shown to have severe vitamin D deficiencies, and the
city population was shown to still have an insufficient intake of vitamin D, though better
than the nomadic population (Norsang et al. 2009). The symptoms of preeclampsia can
manifest quickly and without much warning, and can lead to the rapid deterioration of the
health of both the mother and the fetus. The treatment for preeclamptic mothers is to
induce immediate labor when the symptoms are recognized and proceed with delivery
before the condition worsens (Smulian 2010). In Tibet, inducing labor is often not an
option, and preeclampsia may go untreated. For those many women who remain at home
and do not consult a pregnancy professional at all, there is no way to diagnose the disease
and intervene early in the condition. Tibetan medicine addresses a disease of “swelling”
during pregnancy, but the only treatment recommended is to massage the body and tie a
cord around the woman’s waist to prevent more rlung, or wind, from entering the body
and causing the swelling (Dorjee 2010). This Tibetan treatment does not identify the root
cause of the actual illness as the placenta, and would not be able to affect the course of
the disease. There is a high rate of maternal and infant death for those cases left
undiagnosed and untreated.
Hemorrhage is another universal pregnancy complication that is often present in
Tibet and is a leading cause of maternal and infant death according to the Lhasa-based
2007 study. Hemorrhage is a severe loss of blood from the circulatory system, leading to
debilitating medical difficulties (Smulian 2010). The two most significant types of
pregnancy related hemorrhage are abruption and post partum hemorrhage. Abruption
occurs when the placenta separates too early from the uterine wall during the pregnancy
or during labor. It is considered an emergency, because it results in sudden bleeding and
endangers the life of the mother due to blood loss, and the life of the baby due to
diminished nutrient supply and/or premature birth. There are varying degrees of severity
of abruption, ranging from partial separation to total separation of the placenta (Mayo
Clinic 2010). There are many risk factors for an abruption, including preeclampsia,
physical trauma, smoking, and previous complications during pregnancy. If left
untreated, the mother and the baby are at serious risk. In general, immediate delivery
improves outcomes, which often is best performed by emergency Cesarean section
(Smulian 2010). Post partum hemorrhage, on the other hand, occurs anywhere from
immediately to 6 weeks after delivery, and results from the uterus’ inability to contract
down again after delivery. Contraction of the uterus after delivery allows for the
separation of the placenta and the constriction of blood vessels that previously supplied
the womb. Without this contraction, the blood vessels will not be compressed and
excessive bleeding occurs. Risk factors for post partum hemorrhage include prolonged
labor, infection, incomplete delivery of the placenta, and trauma (Yiadom 2010). Many
of the risk factors for these two types of hemorrhage are present in the Tibetan
population. As mentioned before, preeclampsia is extremely prevalent in Tibet, and will
predispose a woman to experiencing either type of hemorrhage. Trauma is also common,
as women lead difficult lifestyles and often must walk for miles to work to earn money
for their families throughout the pregnancy (Nurse-la 2010). This overexertion is
cautioned against by Tibetan medicine, but women often have no choice and must work,
leading to potentially traumatic accidents that put the pregnancy at risk from both types
of hemorrhage (Gyamtso 2010).
Infection is a serious issue in the population, because the environment is not
always sanitary, especially due to birthing conditions. Living conditions may be
extremely poor, resulting in exposure to many infectious diseases and bacteria (Nurse-la
2010). All of these factors can lead to hemorrhage, infection, and subsequent maternal
and infant death. Tibetan medicine does offer some treatments if bleeding does occur,
such as applying melted butter to the bleeding area or applying and ingesting certain
herbal remedies (Dorjee 2010). However, these are not intended to staunch severe
bleeding, as Tibetan medicine is most often used to treat chronic illnesses and is less
helpful in emergencies (Gyamtso 2010). If women do not deliver in a hospital, there is
little that can be done alone in the case that a hemorrhage occurs.
Tibetan babies frequently have a low birth weight and develop poorly. This often
stems from a complication called fetal growth restriction (FGR). The Lhasa hospital
study states that 24% of infants were born with a low birth weight and were small for
their gestational age (Miller et al. 2007). This compares to the lower statistic of 9% in the
United States (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2006). FGR most commonly
occurs when the uteruo-placental unit is not able to supply the fetus with enough nutrients
to thrive and develop properly. This inability of the nutrients to be passed through the
placenta can occur because of preeclampsia, partial abruption of the placenta, or
diminished oxygen delivery (Ross 2010). If the mothers are underweight and
malnourished, nutrients may also not be transmitted properly. All of these factors greatly
affect the Tibetan population as discussed previously. Infants that are affected by FGR
are often able to survive, but the likelihood of survival is diminished in the Tibetan
population without proper care and post-natal nutrition (Smulian 2010).
Finally, the Tibetan medical texts highlight the issue of obstructed labor. Tibetan
women often experience this condition, in which the baby physically cannot fit through
the mother’s pelvis. Tibetan women typically have small stature and subsequent small
bone structure of the pelvis, and if the baby cannot fit through its mother’s pelvis, it
cannot be delivered. There are many procedures that can be done surgically, like a
Cesarean section or the dislocation of the infant’s clavicle, but without a hospital, these
procedures cannot be performed safely. If this is the case, then the baby often dies in
utero. This can lead to severe maternal complications such as infection, hemorrhage,
pelvic organ damage, or even death (Smulian 2010). This is another emergency case in
which Tibetan medicine cannot help, and further elevates the high maternal and infant
mortality rates (Gyamtso 2010).
Postnatal care is lacking as well. There are many rituals that Tibetan medicine
describes that must be completed after birth, such as feeding the child a mixture of butter,
honey, saffron water, and musk water to protect it from evil spirits. However, when it
comes to the physical care of the infant, there is no standardized postnatal care routine to
follow (Craig 2009). When it comes to breastfeeding, mothers are often malnourished,
and cannot produce enough milk for the child. In this case, when the breast milk is no
longer produced, the infant is introduced to an inappropriate diet too early in its
development. In speaking with a Tibetan nurse, it was mentioned that she often sees 2-
month-old babies being fed black tea, which is completely unsuitable for a newborn
(Nurse-la 2010). Early weaning decreases the amount of protective maternal antibody
from breast milk that reaches the baby, as well as causing malnutrition. An inappropriate
diet like this before the infant has reached 6 months of age can increase susceptibility to
diarrheal disease, one of the leading causes of infant death (Donoghue 2010).
It must also be taken into consideration that Tibet is a country that is being
absorbed rapidly into the People’s Republic of China. After the invasion in 1959, Tibet
rapidly modernized and many of the cities were updated to match the medical standards
of China and the rest of the world. It has caused an interesting juxtaposition between
Tibetan medicine and modern medicine. In Lhasa, though 66% of women do deliver at
home, the rest go to a hospital where Western technologies are available. The Chinese
post many numbers about mortality rates that may not be completely trusted. It is not
clear whether the maternal and infant mortality rates have changed drastically since
Tibet’s westernization, but it can be inferred that the presence of Western technologies
and knowledge about emergency care have only helped the rates, and not hurt them.
There is a large Tibetan community in exile in Dharamsala, in northern India. Medical
practices have also changed there, by the nature of being refugees. Tibetans are still
allowed to practice their native traditions when it comes to medicinal care during a
pregnancy, but it is necessary for women to go to a hospital for the birth itself. Tibetans
are still wary of hospitals, but by giving birth in a state-recognized facility, they can
receive a birth certificate for the infant (Nurse-la 2010). This is key, as the Tibetans in
exile are stateless, and being born in India is an opportunity to gain a birth certificate that
could be useful to the newborn in the future in obtaining residence permits and Identity
Certificates (UN Refugee Agency 2006). Therefore, the majority of Tibetan women in
the Dharamsala community do deliver now in a hospital setting due to the refugee
circumstances. The Tibetan community does not resent the integration of the two systems
in India in exile as long as their culture is respected and can remain as intact as possible
(Nurse-la 2010). This has enabled Tibetan women to have access to newer methods of
labor and delivery care, and this has lead to lower rates of maternal and infant death. In a
very small sample of the greater population, the Delek Hospital in Dharamsala reported
an infant mortality rate of only 7%, reduced from the 9-30% in Tibet (Delek Hospital
2010). This rate is still high in comparison to the United State’s .67%, but it is headed in
the right direction. The merging of the Tibetan medical system and the western
technologies has proven to work well for reducing mortality.
In summary, there are many factors contributing to Tibet’s high maternal and
infant mortality rates. The fact that mothers deliver at home alone may account for a
large portion of the maternal and infant deaths that occur. Combined with the realities of
poor nutrition and a stressful environment where overexertion is common, complications
are likely to occur during a Tibetan woman’s pregnancy. Without a properly trained
professional present at the birth, there is no way to assist the mother or the infant properly
if such a complication occurs. Prenatal care and postnatal care are deficient, and this
frequently leads to malnourishment. Tibetan medicine can be used throughout the
pregnancy, but if an emergency occurs, there is little that Tibetan medicine can do.
However, as Tibet modernizes, there is hope for the future reduction of the high rates of
death. With the integration of the ancient Tibetan traditions and modern practices, the
lives of many Tibetan mothers and babies will be saved, and many of the Tibetan medical
traditions concerning pregnancy will live on.
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