In Uganda, each year an estimated 6,000 women and 35,000 infants die each year from childbirth related complications. Access to skilled health care and appropriate technologies can save many lives. But in many countries, the difference between life and death for many dependent depends upon reliable light and electricity. Without that, health workers cannot provide life-saving care. Midwives struggle to deliver babies by candlelight, life-saving procedures are attempted by flashlight, and patients suffer delays in care or are turned away from health centers unable to function in darkness.
We Care Solar is gearing up for our Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenge Grant installation in Uganda. This project will cover an entire region of Southwest Uganda, providing Solar Suitcases to 200 health facilities. Additionally, it provides an innovative package of interventions to improve service delivery, including a fetal Doppler to detect fetal well-being, phone charging to enhance patient referrals, an electronic learning curriculum for nurses, and an electronic health management information system, and community-based awareness campaigns.
Hospital power outages in Uganda are not an unusual occurrence. “There are so many stories about the power going off in operations, I can’t even tell them all, ” bemoaned Dr. Kato from Iganga hospital. “When the power goes off during an operation, we use whatever is around – a torch. This is very stressful during an operation, and the light is not sufficient, but this is all we had.”
In preparation for the Saving Lives at Birth grant and other installation requests, 14 women from the US, India, Africa, and Mexico joined We Care Solar in Berkeley, California in October for a six-day training in Solar Energy, Maternal Health and Solar Suitcase installations. They wired a Solar Suitcase, climbed on rooftops, learned to fix broken solar electric systems, and practiced teaching medical providers to use the Solar Suitcase.
We Care Solar founders Hal Aronson and Laura Stachel are working in Uganda conducting Solar Suitcase trainings and working with the community to install 19 suitcases in maternal heath centers. The team has met with midwives who talk about how much the Solar Suitcase has improved their deliveries, and surgeons who tell us that many tragedies have been averted by using the Solar Suitcase-powered LED lights. This current Uganda program is conducted in partnership with AMREF Uganda and Safe Mothers Safe Babies.
And more good news, We Care Solar along with partners AMREF Uganda and The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood, won a Saving Lives at Birth Grand Challenges Award in Seattle. This award will help fund a project to bring Solar Suitcases to 200 health facilities in Southwest Uganda. The partnership was also named the winner of the Peer Choice Award, which is given to "the innovator who best demonstrated innovative thinking and having the greatest potential for transformational change as chosen by the Saving Lives at Birth finalists."
In January 2012, the Sierra Leone Ministry of Health and Sanitation and UNFPA invited We Care Solar to Sierra Leone. We Care Solar brought a team to conduct a pilot project - installing seven Solar Suitcases in rural health facilities throughout the country. The trip was coordinated by midwife Isha Daramy-Kabia (Friends of Maternity Hospitals) and the We Care team included We Care Co-founder and Executive Director Laura Stachel, MD, MPH; Solar Energy International electrician and educator, Carol Weis; and documentary filmmaker Lisa Russell.
Sierra Leone has some of the poorest health indicators in the world. The most recent DHS survey (SLDHS, 2008) reports a maternal mortality ratio of 857 per 100,000, an infant mortality rate of 89 per 1000 live births, and a newborn mortality rate of 36 per 1000 live births. Most of the 1,200 rural health centers in Sierra Leone lack reliable electricity, making it difficult to deliver critical services- particularly at night. On several occasions our team was greeted by communities who showed their excitement about the Solar Suitcase by singing and dancing, inventing lyrics about our mission. “Welcome!” they chanted in Krio. “You have brought light. Now we can get treatment.”
On this trip, We Care demonstrated that rural health workers can quickly learn basic solar electricity, that a rugged entry-level solar electric system can be easily installed in remote health centers, and that communities can become instant partners in our efforts to reduce energy poverty and promote safe motherhood. But this is just the beginning…and we hope that one day we will fulfill Isha’s dream to ensure that all the labor rooms in Sierra Leone have reliable lighting.
With the funds from GlobalGiving and other funding sources, We Care Solar installed 17 suitcases in hospitals and clinics in Kano and Kaduna states in Northern Nigeria. Each hospital delivers hundreds of patients every year. The suitcase provides a reliable source of light and power for emergency mobile communication. Health workers were excited to receive the solar suitcases and recounted how this could save lives.
“With a torchlight [flashlight], I can only see one patient at a time,” one midwife lamented after describing an incident in which a mother hemorrhaged in the same room in which she cared for a newborn. Without lighting for the whole room, she hadn’t recognized what was happening. “I would have looked for the source of bleeding, arranged for a blood transfusion…she didn’t have to die.”
“Now we will never need to refer patients out of the hospital,” exclaimed a happy midwife. She also recounted a tragic story. A few days before our arrival, she cared for a patient who needed a c/section. The surgical team had been available and the operating room was stocked with supplies. But the public power supply was down, the generator was without fuel, and it was 8pm – too dark to operate. The midwife was forced to prepare the patient for a transfer to another hospital, 40 kilometers away. En route to the hospital, the patient died.
These two midwives were among those who now have a Solar Suitcase providing light for labor rooms and operating theatres. “We will never refer patients out of the hospital for c/sections,” exclaimed one midwife with excitement. “Now I won’t have to work by candlelight,” another midwife told us with relief. “Now I am not afraid to work at night,” commented a third. With a solar suitcase, they can easily call for help, promptly identify complications, and provide appropriate treatment. The Solar Suitcase provides hope for these health workers, and a chance to provide better care. For mothers and newborns, the solar suitcase offers a better chance of survival.
Our team in Nigeria plans to install an additional 21 suitcases over the next year. This will provide reliable light and power to a total of 27 clinics and hospitals. In these clinics and hospitals there are close to 1600 births a month.
Thank you for your support and joining our movement to light up care in maternal health clinics. With additional funding we plan to expand to serve mothers and their infants in Sierra Leone and Haiti.
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