Donkey ambulances save lives in Darfur, one hoof at a time

Riding the border with Chad less than 20 miles from the Central African Republic, Um Dukhun is a common resettlement area for displaced Darfurians and foreign refugees alike. But Um Dukhun is hardly a safe harbor. With very little food and safe drinking water, people in Um Dukhun are extremely vulnerable to both famine and illness, but often have little, if any, available health services.

While International Medical Corps runs a health facility in Um Dukhun, many camps surrounding the town are very hard to reach. Many people living in remote villages rarely seek care because they lack transportation. To improve care for Um Dukhun’s most isolated residents, International Medical Corps wants to build a rustic, but reliable emergency transportation system – a fleet of donkey ‘ambulances.’

For 30-year-old mother, Kaltoum Adem Yahya, the donkey ambulances could have made the life-or-death difference in her bittersweet delivery. With her home in Abujeradil nearly 17 miles from Um Dukhun, Kaltoum went into labor at home. Pregnant with triplets, Kaltoum delivered her first baby safely there, but her second child was still born and her third suffered a rare and potentially disastrous complication. She then made her way to International Medical Corps’ health center in Um Dukhun by horse cart.

When she arrived at the International Medical Corps center, Kaltoum’s labor was not progressing. The International Medical Corps staff did an emergency c-section, saving Kaltoum’s – and her child’s – life.

“For women and children, the donkey ambulances would make an enormous difference during childbirth, as many mothers deliver children in their homes, because they are either unable to travel the long distances to access reproductive health services or they assume that there will not be complications,” says Dr. Ashok Sharma, International Medical Corps medical director for Darfur.

Many of Darfur’s women die while giving birth, or lose a child because they cannot travel to far-off health centers during pregnancy or delivery. According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 106 infants die for every 1,000 births in Darfur, a number that could drastically be reduced if there was a simple, cost-free way for women to get to the nearest health facilities.

“While mother and baby were discharged in good health, Kaltoum could have had a much safer delivery if she had sought care sooner,” says International Medical Corps’ Dr. Debala Chali. “A visit to the International Medical Corps clinic during pregnancy would have revealed that she was pregnant with triplets and that she needed experienced health workers with her during delivery. The complications in labor could also have been avoided if the delivery was done in an International Medical Corps clinic, a distinction that could have saved the second baby’s life.”

With a 24-hour donkey ambulance service, women will not only be able to get to a hospital in an emergency, but also visit International Medical Corps’ health clinic more frequently, avoiding complicated deliveries like Kaltoum’s. International Medical Corps estimates that with 20 donkey ambulances, people living in isolated villages around Um Dukhun will be able to have the same access to care as those living near the clinic.

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