Motorbikes and Midwives: Delivering better care for Kenya's mums

17 March 2009

Having a baby in rural north-western Kenya is a risky business for the expectant mums who live there.

The likelihood of a woman dying in childbirth here is frighteningly high. Across the country, 560 mums die for every 100,000 children - in parts of northwestern Kenya that figure can double. In Britain the rate is around 8 in 100,000.

Video about new ways of combatting maternal deaths in rural kenya.

But there are many ways that aid money is making a big difference here. As part of our wider £50 million country programme, we are putting in place newly-trained community health workers, a civic education programme, a new maternity unit, and a new motorbike ambulance service. Our video explains how it works.

Also, see Sarah Brown's endorsement of this work

Magunga's baby bikes

The motorbike ambulance, paid for by the British taxpayer, is an amazing vehicle – specially built for the rough tracks around the lakeside villages. Magunga Health Centre, in Nyanza district, northwestern Kenya, has five of them. More photos (Flickr)

It’s a 200cc motorcycle with a custom-built, padded side-car in which a patient can lie down, safely strapped in. In an emergency, a nurse or midwife can travel behind the driver.

Samuel Ouko is one of the bike drivers, and says that in the four months since the ambulance began work, he has brought 15 mothers to hospital – some in advanced stages of labour. All gave birth to healthy babies.

Beatrice Achieng Ochieng, a hairdresser and a volunteer community health worker trained by DFID, helped Jane Mudaji, 32, get to hospital in the motorcycle ambulance. "It was the only way to get her to hospital in time: as soon as we arrived at the Magunga Health Centre, she delivered.

"I’m so pleased, because though Jane has had five children, she has had problems in birth before."

Raising awareness about the benefits of hospital delivery has made a big difference. Beatrice explains why women in the village hadn't used the hospital before: "Chiefly, before the training and education programme, they were frightened. Frightened that hospital was where you went if you were going to die. And that people might force them to have an HIV test.

"They were worried that it would be costly. And of course, before the motorbike ambulance, it was a long way to travel."

Magunga's Health Centre serves a community of 40,000 people, some of whom travel - by foot or by motorbike - from up to ten miles away. Better services and training at the centre have led to a drop in maternal and child deaths in recent months.

"I want you to thank people in your country for their help," said Dr Kiptoo, the medical officer in charge of Magunga Health Centre. "It’s not just making things better in the hospital – it’s saving lives, every day. God bless you for that."

Better care, better births

Twenty-four year old Mary Atieno (pictured right) is expecting to give birth at Magunga Health Centre around Mother’s Day. She's one of many expectant mums in Nyanza province who have decided that hospital care is better than traditional methods, both for them and their babies. Read about how we helped, and about Mother's Day in Kenya, in Better births, better care for Kenya's new mums.

Mary's story shows how DFID's Essential Health Services programme is improving health facilities - including Magunga Health Centre - in Nyanza province.

The programme aims to improve maternal and newborn health (MHN) services through:

  • Skills development and training of health workers in obstetrics and newborn care (including life saving skills)
  • Provision of essential medical equipment
  • Provision of mother- and baby-friendly services
  • Increasing demand and use of MNH services through creating awareness in the community and empowering them to be actively involved in the provision of these services.

Comment from Sarah Brown

Sarah Brown, Global Patron of the White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood said:

"This is yet another great example of Britain leading the way in saving mothers’ lives. For a long time the world has known what needs to be done to reduce the numbers of women dying in pregnancy and childbirth and yet the same numbers of women continue to die. The key to changing the survival chances of mothers and infants is better investment in health services that vulnerable women can reach.

"DFID’s aid money makes a massive difference because it means countries can invest in facilities and health workers and simple but vital things like motorbike ambulances which can often mean the difference between life or death for women who live a long way from a clinic.

"This is important not just because no woman should die giving birth but because investing in healthy women and mothers is a virtuous circle. It is they who build healthy families, communities and economies and help us meet all the other development goals the world has set. We cannot afford to forget them." 

Photo of a two men on a motorbike ambulance

Photo credit: Caroline Irby

Photo of Mary Atieno sitting

Mary Atieno, a young woman who delivered a baby at Magunga Health Centre, Western Kenya. Photo credit: Caroline Irby

Photo of Sarah Brown speaking at a podium

Sarah Brown