- According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one woman dies every two minutes from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. In addition, about 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
- The increase in the number of mothers and newborns is caused by a severe shortage of qualified health care providers, inadequate access to quality health care and basic infrastructure, and poverty in Africa.
- Technology can significantly improve maternal and child health in Africa through telemedicine, mobile health applications, state-of-the-art point-of-care diagnostics, remote monitoring and health education initiatives.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a child is most vulnerable in the first month of life, when 2.4 million newborns will die worldwide in 2020.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest neonatal mortality rate in the world (27 deaths per 1,000 live births), accounting for 43% of all neonatal deaths worldwide.
The most common causes of death in newborns are preterm birth, birth-related complications (such as birth asphyxia or inability to breathe during birth), infection, and birth defects.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 830 women die every day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, which means one woman dies every two minutes.
Approximately 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries, and maternal mortality is higher among women living in rural areas and poorer communities.
According to the United Nations, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for roughly 70% of all maternal deaths in 2020.
In Africa, there is a 1 in 37 chance that a woman will die of pregnancy-related causes, mainly due to poverty.
Poverty is a significant barrier to good maternal and child health outcomes. The likelihood of malnutrition, infections and other health problems increases when there is a lack of access to safe drinking water, nutritious food and health services.
It is not news that many Africans do not have access to quality health services, especially those living in rural areas. As a result, infants and pregnant women may not receive the necessary care and treatment to ensure positive health outcomes.
In many African countries, there is also a severe shortage of qualified health care providers, including doctors, nurses and midwives, limiting access to maternal and child health services such as antenatal care, delivery assistance and postnatal care.
In addition, many African countries lack basic infrastructure, including permanent electricity, water and sanitation, making it difficult for patients to access and use health services in many health facilities.
It also affects the ability of health care providers to provide high quality care.
In Africa, these factors show that maternal and newborn health is a significant challenge due to high maternal and newborn mortality rates.
However, technological advances present unprecedented opportunities to address these challenges.
Why is this important?
In Africa, technology has become a powerful tool for improving maternal and child health.
One of the goals of UN Sustainable Development Goal 3 is to reduce maternal mortality globally to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030, with no country’s rate exceeding twice the global average.
For infant and child mortality, it aims to end preventable deaths of infants and children under 5 years of age, with all nations aiming to reduce these figures to at least 12 per 1,000 live births for infant mortality and 25 per 1,000 live births. births for under-5 mortality by 2030.
But a WHO report titled Trends in Maternal Mortality states that 287,000 women died worldwide in 2020. The report tracks maternal deaths at national, regional and global levels from 2000 to 2020.
Compared to the 309,000 maternal deaths in 2016 when the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, this represents a marginal decrease.
Sub-Saharan Africa has also seen a reduction in maternal mortality due to significant efforts. Between 2000 and 2017, maternal mortality in sub-Saharan Africa decreased by 39%, from 870 to 533 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births.
However, at the current rate of decline, Africa will need to reduce its rates by 86% from 2017, the latest year for which data were available, to meet the SDG target.
So technology has the potential to reduce this. It has changed the healthcare delivery landscape with its innovative applications that enable better access, diagnosis, treatment and monitoring.
How technology can transform maternal and newborn health in Africa
Technologies improve access to health services by removing conventional barriers, including distance, inadequate infrastructure and shortage of health workers.
Technology is transforming maternal and newborn health in Africa through the following.
Telemedicine has changed the game by allowing doctors to consult patients virtually, especially in remote locations, through communication and information technology.
Pregnant women can receive prenatal care via telemedicine without having to travel to nearby health facilities, including monitoring of blood pressure, blood sugar and fetal heart rate.
For example, Clafiya, a Nigerian health technology startup, provides in-person prenatal care testing while a woman communicates virtually with a doctor.
2. Mobile applications and websites
In addition, health professionals can send health information and reminders to expectant mothers and caregivers using mHealth applications, including mobile applications and SMS-based platforms. It promotes healthy and timely behavior in seeking health care.
For example, totohealth, a Kenyan healthcare startup, uses voice and SMS messaging to reduce maternal and infant mortality and identify developmental abnormalities early in the country.
Mobile apps and websites are also improving maternal and child health outcomes in Africa. These platforms provide access to health information, track pregnancies, and promote health education and behavior change. Nigeria’s Babymigo is one example.
Babymigo is a web-based platform that reduces maternal and child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, starting with Nigeria, by providing expert-led information, tools and resources through a community-led platform.
The platform empowers, equips and provides tools and resources to women at various stages of their pregnancy and parenting journeys to improve maternal and child health outcomes.
Uganda’s WinSenga mobile app also helps measure fetal heartbeats, improve prenatal care in rural clinics and prevent maternal deaths.
Other mobile phone apps, such as immunization trackers, help caregivers ensure their children are vaccinated on time, thereby reducing the number of vaccine-preventable diseases, including polio, tetanus and influenza.
3. SMS-based platforms
Technology-based health promotion initiatives empower women and caregivers to make informed health decisions. Examples include SMS reminders for antenatal care appointments and mobile apps for breastfeeding support.
In addition, the MomConnect program in South Africa uses text messages to remind pregnant women and new mothers to keep appointments and to send them educational messages about maternal and child health issues.
Pregnant women can register by dialing *134*550# from their phone and providing basic information about their pregnancy.
4. Diagnostics at the point of care
Technology is also changing maternal and child health diagnosis and care. Innovative medical tools and point-of-care diagnostics can help detect pregnancy complications and childhood illnesses early.
Point-of-care diagnostics are medical tests performed at or near the patient’s point of care. For example, pregnant women can use portable ultrasound devices to check high-risk pregnancies, such as placental abruption and fetal malformations, allowing for quick interventions.
In addition, the Hemafuse device is a portable, low-cost blood transfusion tool used in emergencies to save the lives of women suffering from postpartum hemorrhage.
In addition, rapid tests for HIV, syphilis and malaria can help stop mother-to-child transmission of these diseases and ensure that infected mothers and newborns receive early treatment.
In addition, technology enables remote monitoring and tracking of maternal and child health indicators, improving health outcomes.
Wearable devices such as fetal heart rate monitors and remote blood pressure monitors can help pregnant women monitor their health at home and share information with medical professionals so they can act as quickly as possible.
This technology is particularly beneficial in managing high-risk pregnancies and monitoring premature babies. For example, the Embrace Nest is a low-cost, portable incubator created for premature babies that allows continuous remote monitoring of vital signs.
6. Other tools
In April 2023, the East African Community (EAC) launched the Reproductive, Maternal, Newborn, Child and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) Digital Scorecard 2022 for the Government of Zanzibar.
A digital scorecard helps monitor and evaluate key performance indicators (KPIs) specific to an industry or domain, such as healthcare. It can track KPIs such as vaccination and maternal and infant mortality.
It can also assist health professionals in developing targeted interventions to improve maternal and child care.
In remote areas with poor infrastructure, remote sensing technologies such as drones can be used to transport vital maternal and child health supplies such as medicines and vaccines.
Technology also helps promote behavior change and health education, which are critical to improving maternal and child health outcomes.
Websites, mobile apps and social media are among the digital platforms that offer health information and guidance on topics such as breastfeeding, nutrition and hygiene.
Meanwhile, eHealth initiatives, including electronic health records (EHR) and health information systems, are also increasing the efficiency and quality of medical care.
EHRs allow physicians to store and retrieve patient data electronically, which reduces errors, increases coordination, and improves continuity of care.
Health information systems enable the collection, analysis, and reporting of data to inform policy and decision making based on the best available research on maternal and child health issues.
Although technology can significantly improve maternal and child health outcomes in Africa, you need to know that it cannot replace an effective health care system. Therefore, for these technological advances to be effective, they must be incorporated into the current health care system.