Ghana: Cell Phones Cut Maternal Deaths

Bonsaaso — Cell phones have cut dramatically the number of women dying during childbirth in Amensie village in south-central Ghana, according to local health officials.

Health and aid workers say while other improvements in primary healthcare in Amensie - as part of the Millennium Villages project - have contributed to the drop, the availability of cell phones has been pivotal.

"When we did not have mobile telecommunication, women were dying," district nurse Madam Lydia Owusu told IRIN. "It was horrifying to be pregnant here before this project came along...Mothers used to bleed to death while waiting in their homes, hoping a health worker would come to help them."

"We have not recorded a single maternal death in Amensie village since 2006 when this project started," she said.

Before cell phone and internet technology were introduced to Amensie, some 20 women died in childbirth each year, according to Owusu. In 2008 none did.

On average 560 women die during childbirth or from pregnancy complications per 100,000 live births in Ghana, according to the UN.

Amensie resident Juliet Asante, 35, cradled her two-week-old son as she told IRIN: "My first child died during delivery. It was painful because I now know she had to die so that I can live."

Asante's mother supervised the delivery of the first child at home because the family could not reach the ambulance or the district's only midwife, Asante said.

This time her husband called the hospital with his new mobile. "In no time the ambulance was here to take me. It was smooth."

Amensie is part of a cluster of villages called Bonsaaso, 60km from Ghana's second largest city, Kumasi, in Ashanti region.

Bonsaaso is part of the Millennium Villages project, in which villages are selected by development agencies to receive assistance in reaching the Millennium Development Goals and lifting residents - in this case 30,000 - out of poverty.

Since 2006 development partners have built and improved Bonsaaso's schools and health clinics and provided an ambulance to the nearest district hospital in Tonto Krom, 12km away.

But even with the district's first ambulance maternal deaths did not decrease, as villagers could not communicate when they needed the vehicle, said Owusu.

Half of women in Ghana give birth at home with no skilled health worker present, while the lack of access to equipment and skilled health workers is a principal driver of childbirth deaths, according to UNICEF.

In 2006 mobile handset producer Ericsson teamed with mobile telecommunications firm Zain to install internet access and mobile phone coverage in the villages in 2006. They distributed free handsets to health workers and sold handsets to villagers for US$10 each.

"We entered the project because we believe information and communications technology play a critical role in helping to end the poverty cycle," Elaine Weidman, Vice-President of Corporate Responsibility at Ericsson, told IRIN.

The UN says maternal health overall has improved in Bonsaaso due to improved primary healthcare services. But local nurse Owusu said the drop in deaths during childbirth is due primarily to information and communication technologies (ICT) plus the ambulance.

Leader of the UN Development Programme team managing the project in Ghana, Samuel Afram, said the ICT component of the project will help the area reach all eight Millennium Development Goals.

The presence of computers in schools, for instance, has helped increase enrolment, he said.

The World Bank and other institutions have established the positive correlation between improved ICT and access poverty-reduction in numerous studies.

But ICT is by no means a panacea for improving health logistics, Afram stressed - funding to purchase supplies and equipment must also be increased.

Sustainable?

ICT firms are increasingly stepping in to address poverty-related problems with technology solutions, according to Ericsson.

The Grameen Bank's Applications Laboratory, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, worked with the Ghana Health Service to provide affordable handsets to pregnant women in Upper East Region. Women received answers to common ante- and post-natal questions as well as reminders about check-ups or vaccinations.

Afram said he is concerned over what will happen to the ICT project in 2015 when development partners will hand over the Millennium Villages project to the government.

"How to sustain the project beyond the 2015 deadline is our biggest worry because it will continue to take some significant investment," he said, estimating it costs $2 million annually to run the project.

Ghana Communications Minister Haruna Iddrisu told IRIN the government cannot continue without private sector help. He said he has begun talks with computer firms to explore how to finance the project past 2015.

[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations ]

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