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Bringing ultrasound to midwives and mothers in Sierra Leone

VSO/Peter Caton

Midwives in northern Sierra Leone have access to the first ever portable ultrasound technology available in the region’s public healthcare system, thanks to VSO supporters.

Becoming pregnant in Sierra Leone is a scary prospect. Women here have a 1/17 chance of dying during pregnancy or childbirth – thought to be the highest maternal mortality rate in the world.

It’s not hard to see why. In Bombali District, over 600,000 people rely on just 48 maternal and child health posts. Many are based in rural communities, and equipped with only the most basic of facilities: a bed, a community health worker and whatever medicines are not currently in shortage.

Midwives under pressure

“We only have very basic things at this unit,” says Catherine Swaray, who has delivered over a thousand babies in five years as a rural midwife.

Midwife Catherine Swaray scans 17-year-old Mariama Jalloh, assisted by VSO volunteer Dr Kiran Cheedella VSO/Peter Caton

Midwife Catherine Swaray scans 17-year-old Mariama Jalloh, assisted by VSO volunteer Dr Kiran Cheedella

“At the hospital they can offer comprehensive obstetric emergency care. They can offer blood transfusion, caesarean section, newborn intensive care. We have none of that here. So if we have a complicated delivery it’s important that we know, so that we can refer.”

Catherine’s facility is typical – women with anything but the most straightforward pregnancies could be in mortal danger.

“It's really a matter of time. As soon as you know this case is an emergency, it has a time limit because the baby will not wait for you to get prepared. The longer you stay, the more distressed the baby becomes.”

Sadly, all too often complications are spotted too late and babies’ lives cannot be saved, as Catherine recalls with sorrow:

“When we lose a baby, I have to shed tears. I'm a mother, too. I have three children. I know how it feels. Most times you do not cry in front of them. I will just go to my office, because it tells on you as the midwife. Your responsibility is to save the mother and the child. And if the child dies, you did not do your job for the mother.”

The scandal of inequality in maternal health

It’s incredibly difficult to think of the pressures facing midwives like Catherine in rural Sierra Leone, especially when you consider the discrepancy with richer, more developed countries.

Midwife Elizabeth Davies is based at Binkolo Community Health Centre. VSO/Peter Caton

Midwife Elizabeth Davies is based at Binkolo Community Health Centre. She’s been trained and equipped with a portable ultrasound machine through VSO’s Doctors for Development programme.

The WHO recommends an ultrasound scan in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy to detect foetal abnormalities, complications and multiple pregnancies – which could help midwives make important decisions.

It’s something taken for granted by expectant parents living in wealthier parts of the world.

Having a scan is a ritual that provides reassurance, peace of mind and an opportunity to connect with the life growing inside them. Seeing your baby’s heartbeat on the ultrasound monitor for the first time is a moment few mothers forget.

This is sadly not the experience for the vast majority of women in Bombali district, Sierra Leone. Just one single ultrasound machine exists in Makeni General Hospital, a facility serving an area of nearly 8,000 km2 that is home to well over half a million people.

Most live in rural locations far from the hospital – probably relying on a basic health centre, which may still be hours away from home.

Making maternity care mobile

Thankfully, things are changing. A VSO project has provided portable ultrasound machines, known as V-scans, for the very first time in northern Sierra Leone. Midwives have been trained to use the technology, and it’s allowing them to spot complications early, and crucially to refer expectant mothers to hospital to reach specialist care before it’s too late.

The fact that the V-scan is portable means that the midwives trained to use it can cover a wide area, traveling all over the Bombali district providing regular antenatal clinics to women, no matter how far they live from maternal health facilities.

Midwife Catherine Swaray carries her own baby to work everyday on the back of a motor bike VSO/Peter Caton

Midwife Catherine Swaray carries her own baby to work everyday on the back of a motor bike. The clinics where she works are often remote.

When midwife Catherine passes through a rural village on the back of a motorbike, ultrasound scanner kit slung over her shoulder, pregnant women hurry to join her, calling each other to join for a scan. 

She’s assisted by VSO volunteer Dr Kiran Cheedella, whose role includes mentoring and coaching rural midwives and community health workers on effective use of the V-scans.

At one such clinic at Kamaranka, women in various states of pregnancy line up for a check, which will include a scan, as well as tests for blood pressure and blood sugar levels.

Though the technology is new to these women, they are excited and happy to receive expert medical attention.

Mamie Momoh, 21, has just seen her baby for the first time, and heard she is due to deliver a healthy child very soon:

Mamie Momoh, 21, who is nine months pregnant, observes as she is scanned for the first time at Kamaranka Community Health Centre VSO/Peter Caton

Mamie Momoh, 21, who is nine months pregnant, observes as she is scanned for the first time at Kamaranka Community Health Centre

“I saw my child! It's like a video. And the nurse told me that my baby's head is now pointing down, it's ready.”

I was so happy seeing my baby. The only thing I was unable to know is whether the baby is a boy or a girl. I am excited to find out!”

Volunteer Kiran is hopeful for this work, and the potential for expansion:

"I’ve seen a huge increase in knowledge of the midwives and their ability to scan well. It’s really been impressive to see how well they’ve done in these few months and also on how much they’ve taken it on as a duty to themselves, to go out there and find other health care centres, not just remaining attached to their own. To try and get there to scan more and more women, they’re really getting into it and excited to scan and I think they’re going to create a really big impact in the community.”

You can help us do more.

Your valuable donation could help bring quality care to mothers and babies facing an often frightening and uncertain time. You could help safely deliver babies and save the lives of newborns in Sierra Leone this Christmas.

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