Kate's condition no joke

Brave face ...The Duchess of Cambridge at her first public engagement since being released from hospital this week.
Brave face ...The Duchess of Cambridge at her first public engagement since being released from hospital this week. Photo: AP

On March 31, 1855, Charlotte Bronte died. She was 38 years old, married a mere nine months, and she was pregnant. What killed her was probably the same disorder that is now afflicting the Duchess of Cambridge. Hyperemesis gravidarum, excessive vomiting in pregnancy, is a life-threatening condition to be treated as a medical emergency.

Even common or garden morning sickness is no joke, especially if you're trying to hold down a job at the time.

It is typical of the skewed priorities of medical research that little effort is going into finding out why morning sickness happens and how to prevent it. Nor do we know why two or three in every thousand pregnant women will vomit themselves to dehydration. Fortunes are spent on finding ways to prolong the lives of the elderly rich; nothing is spent on helping young women to come through pregnancy fit enough to undertake the hardest job of their lives.

The orthodox view is that, as pregnancy is not an illness, misery during pregnancy is to be endured. Thalidomide was prescribed as an antiemetic for pregnant women from 1957 to 1962 and then, slowly and painfully, found to be the cause of serious birth defects. Since then it has been agreed that women may take very few medicines, if any, during pregnancy and certainly nothing to control nausea.

The media chortled over the duchess' condition, as if they thought she should just buck up. She had, after all, been seen playing hockey in high-heeled boots mere days before she was rushed into the Edward VII hospital. Faded pop star Morrissey climbed on to his soapbox and announced that there was nothing wrong with her.

The royal family had not intended to announce the duchess' pregnancy until she had passed 12 weeks. Her emergency admission demanded a public explanation and so, far too early, the pregnancy had to be announced. It is typical of the condition that it strikes earlier than less serious forms of morning sickness. It also lasts longer, often throughout the pregnancy, and sometimes even after.

At the time of the duchess' admission to hospital, some attempt was made to inform the public about the real danger of her condition. But it made little impact. Most people would not have realised she spent her time in hospital hooked up to a drip to replace her lost fluids and electrolytes. The emphasis was all on the good news; the Queen will have a great-grandchild and that great-grandchild, whether boy or girl, will succeed to the throne. Unfortunately, if the duchess' nausea cannot be controlled, there may be long-term effects for her and for the child or children she is carrying.

Before the 1950s when it became routine to replace lost fluids intravenously, hyperemesis gravidarum was the principal cause of death of pregnant women. Though the duchess has left hospital, she has gone no further than Kensington Palace, where it seems she continues to receive treatment. She has appeared only once in public since, and only for a few minutes. She may even have to miss the Windsor family Christmas at Sandringham.

Into this delicate situation on December 4 crashed the two Australian broadcasters who thought it would be a jolly jape to hoax the hospital into accepting a crank call. On Friday, December 7, the body of Jacintha Saldanha, the nurse who took the call, was found hanging in her lodging, along with three suicide notes. Since then she has been remembered in a service in Bristol Cathedral, another in Westminster Cathedral, and her body flown back to India for interment in her birthplace of Shirva.

If the seriousness of the duchess' condition had been grasped by the media and the general public, I bet the broadcasters would never have tried to make a joke of it. This is no time for pranks. Kate's is still a difficult pregnancy and the outcome far from certain.

Germaine Greer is an Australian-born writer and professor of English literature at Warwick University in Britain.