Birth, Babies & Batteries
by Mina Mesbahi, Solarplaza
Birth, Babies & Batteries: A Solar Survival Story
Every 11 seconds, a newborn or a pregnant woman dies somewhere in the world. This means that around 2.8 million babies and pregnant women die on a yearly basis around the globe, and mostly as a result of preventable causes. For many of us, the birth of a newborn marks one of the happiest milestones in our lives, but heartbreakingly the same cannot be said for those 2.8 million babies and mothers. This is 2.8 million deaths too many. As staggering and disturbing these statistics are, the good news is that as the solar community we have the power to do something about this. To help you get a better grasp of what’s possible, we spoke with Dr. Niall Conroy, Assistant Professor in Emergency Medical Science at University College Dublin, whose dedication has brought to life a project that is a testimony to the larger role clean energy can play in making radical and rapid improvements in neonatal mortality rates.
This story begins with Dr.Conroy embarking on a journey to Sierra Leone to volunteer at project Bo in 2013. Bo is a district within Sierra Leone and the second biggest district in the country. Dr.Conroy was sent to Project Bo to look after the children without any mention of newborns. To his surprise, the children’s ward although awful was still semi-functional but nobody was taking care of the newborns, the majority of whom would simply die if they were sick. That was mainly due to the fact that these sick newborns would still be placed in the same ward as sick children with highly-infectious diseases and therefore stood no chance of recovery by default. These horrific circumstances persisted for a few years but so did Dr.Conroy’s advocacy for a dedicated newborn service, which led UNICEF agreeing to fund the project.
Afterward, Dr.Conroy went back to Sierra Leone to help UNICEF establish the newborn unit ward, which was a success. However, the neonatal mortality rate- which is the highest in Sub-Saharan Africa, was still quite significant with one out of four babies dying at Project Bo. After a while, they increased the space to accommodate a larger number of babies and despite the 25% mortality rate, they could still manage to save more lives. Nevertheless, one major issue they could not get simply around was power. Little newborns gasping for air and struggling to breathe due to power cuts, which lasted sometimes for weeks at a time, was somewhat of a norm. These babies would perish due to the oxygen machine not functioning from the power outages, which rightly so, made for a set of somber and very demoralizing circumstances for the doctors and nurses.
One evening, Dr.Conroy left three babies who were completely reliant on the oxygen machine at the newborn unit. The day after, he came back to an empty bed with three little blankets as those babies had sadly died overnight. Out of sheer frustration and sadness,
The lack of electricity here means that three of our oxygen-dependent babies died last night when the power went off. Not good enough in 2017. Low-cost tech eg affordable solar power must b a priority for saving newborn lives. @UCDMedicine @UCDcems @IrlEmbFreetown @TheEchoOnline pic.twitter.com/8kRyvl4ejF— Niall Conroy (@NICU_doc_salone) November 20, 2017
Dr.Conroy took to twitter posting a photo of that very empty bed and the following tweet: “The lack of electricity here means that three of our oxygen-dependent babies died last night when the power went off. Not good enough in 2017. Low-cost tech eg affordable solar power must be a priority for saving newborn lives”. As the world of twitter works, the word got around and made it to Michael Liebreich, the founder of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. Touched by this story, Liebreich contacted Dr.Conroy and through a fundraising campaign, he raised £100,000, which were invested to purchase solar panels for Project Bo. Despite some challenges, this has been ultimately a home run in providing reliable electricity and a true demonstration of the impact the energy community has on health outcomes.
According to Dr.Conroy, the only thing that has changed in the last year has been adding solar panels, which has helped them admit an additional 230 babies as now mothers are more inclined to bring the babies into the ward given the rise in survival rates. Even though the admission rates have grown, the number of deaths has reduced by 30. This has undoubtedly been an extraordinary improvement. Nonetheless, this success has shed light on the other side of the birth equation, which is the mothers. These mothers are subject to horrific circumstances; they have to sleep outside, some get bitten by street dogs and some cannot even cope physically due to post-cesarean difficulties.Therefore, they end up going back to their village and taking the sick babies with them.
Bo is a particularly bad example but it’s not a unique one at that, newborn deaths due to lack of access to electricity are happening all over Sub-Saharan Africa. We need to learn from Project Bo and replicate a blueprint that can be scaled. In the words of Dr.Conroy himself, as the solar community, we need to embrace the need to expand this incredible technology to low-income countries and make solar systems that are affordable, accessible and fit for purpose for poorer developing countries. We have heard many stories about differential pay rates of Hollywood actresses or women in C-level positions, particularly in the last year. The mothers of Sierra Leone are very vulnerable women at the very far end of equality in comparison with women in high-income countries. Much of the discourse around the world right now is about inequality and rightfully so. These mothers being denied access to the most basic infrastructural facilities in 2019 is just not acceptable. Projects like Project Bo at their crux are a story of equality and anyone who is interested in equity, should also have an interest in providing access to energy for these vulnerable women and babies.
Lastly, here at Solarplaza, we publish many articles and white papers to help you better navigate the budding solar market. At our core, we are conference organizers but we are also a knowledge platform- we do take a lot of pride in that and have an immense amount of gratitude and appreciation for our dedicated community of solar professionals and enthusiasts. Having said that, this will be perhaps one of the most important and impactful stories we have shared with you throughout this year. Now, how can we make sure that more and more projects like Project Bo are created? Which concrete steps can we take? How can we ensure the safety of these newborns and their mothers? As crucial as it is to have these conversations, but talk is just that- it’s simply not enough. So here is my hope for this new decade: that the solar community raises the ante and makes massive strides in delivering life-changing outcomes for patients in low-income developing countries.
The statistics may be desperately tragic but progress is certainly possible. Let’s not forget!
To learn more about Project Bo and stay up-to-date on its developments and progress, head over to https://www.projectbo.org/. Also, to hear more about some of the lessons learnt throughout this project from Michael Liebreich or if you are interested in pursuing a similar project, join us on February 6-7, 2020 in Amsterdam.