- According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one woman dies every two minutes from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth. Besides, about 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries.
- The rise in maternal and neonatal rates is due to a severe shortage of skilled healthcare providers, a lack of access to quality healthcare and basic infrastructure, and poverty in Africa.
- Technology can improve maternal and child health in Africa significantly through telemedicine, mobile health applications, cutting-edge point-of-care diagnostics, remote monitoring, and health education initiatives.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), a child is most vulnerable in its first month of life, with 2.4 million newborns dying worldwide in 2020.
Sub-Saharan Africa has the highest neonatal mortality rate in the world (27 deaths per 1,000 live births), which accounts for 43% of all newborn deaths globally.
The most common causes of neonatal deaths are preterm birth, complications related to childbirth (such as birth asphyxia or the inability to breathe at birth), infections, and birth defects.
Per the World Health Organization (WHO), 830 women die each day from preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth, implying that one woman dies every two minutes.
Approximately 99% of all maternal deaths occur in developing countries, and maternal mortality is higher in women living in rural areas and in poorer communities.
According to the United Nations, sub-Saharan Africa accounted for roughly 70% of all maternal fatalities in 2020.
In Africa, there is a 1 in 37 chance that a woman will die from pregnancy-related causes, primarily because of poverty.
Poverty is a significant impediment to good maternal and child health outcomes. The likelihood of developing malnutrition, infections, and other health issues rises when there is a lack of access to safe drinking water, nutritious food, and healthcare services.
It’s not news that many Africans lack access to quality healthcare services, particularly those who live in rural areas. Consequently, infants and pregnant women might not get the necessary care and treatment to guarantee positive health outcomes.
There is also a severe shortage of skilled healthcare providers, including doctors, nurses, and midwives, in many African countries, restricting access to maternal and child health services such as prenatal care, childbirth assistance, and postnatal care.
Additionally, many African nations lack basic infrastructure, including constant electricity, water, and sanitation, making it difficult for patients to access and use healthcare services in many healthcare facilities.
It also impacts the ability of healthcare 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 neonatal mortality rates.
However, technological advancements present unprecedented opportunities to address these challenges.
Why is this important?
In Africa, technology has become a potent tool for enhancing maternal and child health.
One of the targets of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 3 is to reduce maternal mortality rates worldwide to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030, with no nation's rates exceeding twice the global average.
As for neonatal and child mortality, it aims to put an end to avoidable deaths of infants and kids under the age of 5, with all nations aiming to lower those numbers to at least 12 per 1,000 live births for neonatal mortality and 25 per 1,000 live births for under-5 mortality by 2030.
But a WHO report titled, Trends in maternal mortality, says 287,000 women died worldwide in 2020. The report tracks maternal deaths nationally, regionally, and globally from 2000 to 2020.
Compared to 309,000 maternal deaths in 2016, the year the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) were adopted, this represents a marginal decline.
Also, sub-Saharan Africa has 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.
Nonetheless, at the current rate of decline, Africa will need to reduce its rates by 86% from 2017, the most recent year for which data was available, to meet the SDG target.
Consequently, technology has the potential to reduce this. It has changed the landscape of healthcare delivery with its innovative applications, enabling better access, diagnostics, treatment, and monitoring.
How tech can transform maternal and neonatal health in Africa
Technology is improving access to healthcare services by removing conventional barriers, including distance, a lack of infrastructure and a shortage of healthcare workers.
Technology is transforming maternal and neonatal health in Africa through the following.
Telemedicine has changed the game by enabling doctors to consult with patients virtually, especially in remote locations, via communication and information technology.
Pregnant women can receive prenatal care via telemedicine without having to travel to nearby medical facilities, including monitoring of blood pressure, blood sugar levels, and fetal heart rate.
For example, Clafiya, a Nigerian healthtech startup, provides in-person maternity care testing while the woman communicates virtually with a doctor.
2. Mobile apps and websites
Moreover, healthcare professionals can send health information and reminders to expectant mothers and caregivers using mHealth applications, including mobile apps and SMS-based platforms. It promotes healthy and timely healthcare-seeking behaviours.
For instance, Totohealth, a Kenyan healthtech startup, employs voice and SMS messages to lower maternal and infant mortality and identify developmental abnormalities early in the country.
Mobile apps and websites also improve maternal and child health outcomes in Africa. These platforms provide access to health information, track pregnancies, and support health education and behaviour change. Nigeria's Babymigo is one example.
Babymigo is a web-based platform that reduces maternal and child mortality in sub-Saharan Africa, beginning in Nigeria, by providing expert-led information, tools, and resources through the 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.
Further, a Ugandan mobile app, WinSenga, helps measure a fetus's heartbeat, enhancing prenatal care in rural clinics and avoiding maternal fatalities.
Other mobile phone applications, such as immunisation tracking tools, assist caregivers in ensuring their children's timely vaccination, thereby reducing 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 antenatal care appointment reminders and mobile apps to support breastfeeding.
Additionally, the MomConnect programme in South Africa uses SMS 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 dialling *134*550# from their phones and providing basic information about their pregnancies.
4. Point-of-care diagnostics
Technology is also transforming diagnosis and care in maternal and child health. Innovative medical tools and point-of-care diagnostics can help detect pregnancy complications and pediatric illnesses early.
Point-of-care diagnostics are medical tests carried out at or close to the location of the patient's care. For example, pregnant women can use portable ultrasound devices to check for high-risk pregnancies like placental abruption and fetal malformation, allowing prompt interventions.
Additionally, the Hemafuse device is a portable, inexpensive blood transfusion tool used in an emergency to save the lives of women experiencing postpartum haemorrhage.
Besides, rapid tests for HIV, syphilis, and malaria can aid in stopping the transmission of these diseases from mother to child and ensuring that infected mothers and newborns receive timely treatment.
In addition, technology is making it possible to remotely monitor and track maternal and child health indicators, improving health outcomes.
Wearables like 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 especially beneficial in the management of high-risk pregnancies and the monitoring of premature babies. The Embrace Nest, for instance, is a low-cost, portable incubator created for preterm infants, enabling ongoing remote monitoring of vital signs.
6. Other tools
In April 2023, the East African Community (EAC) launched the 2022 Reproductive, Maternal, New-Born, Child, and Adolescent Health (RMNCAH) digital scorecard for the Zanzibar government.
A digital scorecard helps monitor and evaluate key performance indicators (KPIs) specific to a field or domain, like healthcare. It can track KPIs such as vaccination and maternal and infant mortality rates.
It can also assist healthcare professionals in creating focused interventions to enhance maternal and infant healthcare.
In remote areas with poor infrastructure, remote sensing technologies, like drones, can be used to transport vital supplies for maternal and child health, like medicines and vaccines.
Technology is also assisting the promotion of behavioural change and health education, both of which are critical for improving maternal and child health outcomes.
Websites, mobile apps, and social media are among the digital platforms that offer health information and instruction on subjects like breastfeeding, nutrition, and hygiene.
Meanwhile, eHealth initiatives, including electronic health records (EHRs) and health information systems, are also enhancing the effectiveness and calibre of medical care.
EHRs allow medical professionals to electronically store and retrieve patient data, which lowers errors, boosts coordination, and improves continuity of care.
Health information systems make it possible to collect, analyse, and report data to create policies and make decisions based on the best available research to address maternal and child health issues.
Although technology can significantly improve maternal and child health outcomes in Africa, you must know that it cannot replace an efficient healthcare system. Therefore, for these technological advancements to be effective, they must be incorporated into the current healthcare system.