As Kenya strives to attain the millennium development goals, it is emerging that the country loses on average 15 women and 290 children each day due to pregnancy-related complications.
The deaths mostly occur while giving birth and due to HIV and Aids infection. According to the United Nations, about 35 per cent of all newborn deaths happen because of severe infection. Around 66 per cent of under-five deaths are post-natal, usually caused by pneumonia and diarrhoea. More than 34,000 stillbirths happen each year, with most cases recorded in rural areas.
And to reduce these deaths, St John Ambulance has introduced motorcycle ambulances to help mothers deliver in hospital.
In motorcycle ambulances the organisation says, thousands of expectant women, mostly in marginalised areas, would be able to access healthcare without challenges.
“Giving birth is a pleasant experience in most Kenyan families. But this has not been the case in some remote rural villages in Kenya,” says St John Ambulance Chairman Major Marsden Madoka.
He says the three-wheel motorcycle is modeled for rough terrain and is cost effective.
The bike ambulance carries a rider and a paramedic with a sidecar for carrying patients.
According to Mr Madoka, four motorcycle ambulances have already been acquired by the 86-year-old charity organisation for piloting in four remote villages in Tana River County, which has one of the highest numbers of maternal deaths. The villages are Biressa, Wayu boro, Dende and Tawakal.
The pilot project that saw four ambulances deployed aims to boost maternal health in areas with inadequate infrastructure.
If successful, the project will be rolled out in other counties with low rates of access to maternal healthcare. The uniquely-made motorcycle ambulance can navigate the rough rural terrain. Also, it’s much lighter to push even if it gets stuck or develops mechanical problems.
“The moto-ambulances are affordable to maintain. They consume little fuel, making them suitable for impoverished populations. With fuel of Sh20, it can take a woman for delivery at a hospital located five kilometres away and come back,” said Madoka.
The Saint John project complements First Lady Margaret Kenyatta’s maternal health campaign dubbed ‘Beyond Zero’ which aims to provide mobile clinics in counties where maternal and child deaths are high due to poor transport networks.
Makueni County is also planning to introduce the motorcycle ambulances.
County Health Executive Andrew Mutava says they will partner with community workers, who will help refer expectant mothers to hospitals for delivery. Mutava says out of 900,000 fertile women, about 40,500 give birth in the county yearly and most of them deliver at home. He says such ambulances will be of great help to mothers.
He says community health workers have seen a high number of mothers delivering and attending their ante-natal and post-natal clinics.
Health experts say the motorbike ambulances will reduce medical response times and enable mothers get to a hospital in time to deliver safely.
St John’s Eye Hospital Chairman in Israel Nicholas Woolf, who presided over an occasion to unveil the new motorcycle ambulances in Nairobi said such innovative ways would greatly improve the livelihood in rural areas.
“The new motorbike ambulances in Kenya are an example of how innovation can overcome some of the challenges facing rural communities. However, it requires huge resources to sustain such innovations,” said Mr Woolf. Madoka appealed to well-wishers to support such innovations to improve the health of women and other vulnerable populations. “As a charity organisation, we are constantly in need of more support to improve our lifesaving services,” he said.
As part of the initiative to boost maternal healthcare, St John Ambulance has also provided small business grants and loans to women groups in remote areas to enable them fend for their pre and post natal care necessities.
The initiative is not new in the region. In Malawi, Sudan and Zambia, the motorbike ambulances, referred to as e-Ranger ambulances, transport women in labour from health centres to hospitals faster than traditional ones. Recently, Uganda also launched tailor-made bikes to help reduce the maternal mortality rate in rural communities in Gulu.
Experts say the high-powered ambulances, with a sidecar stretcher bed for the patient and some space for emergency on-site medical supplies, plus room to carry a doctor would be better able to navigate rough road surfaces than standard ambulances, especially during rainy seasons.
Jua kali artisans who spoke to The Standard said they should be given the opportunity to make the bikes instead of importing them.
“We have creativity in Kenya and I assure you we can come up with such models,” said Sam Maingi, a jua kali artisan based in Nairobi’s Grogan area.