As drought tightens its grip on Kenya, a motorcycle ambulance is helping women to access critical health care

The motorcycle ambulance has significantly reduced the time required to deliver essential and urgent medical assistance to local communities.© UNFPA/Luis Tato
  • 12 January 2023

TURKANA COUNTY, Kenya – “The hardship brought on by the drought has left many women weak and malnourished. I cannot imagine them giving birth without the support of a skilled health professional,” said Mark Epeyon, a community health volunteer at the Katilu hospital in Kenya’s Turkana County.

As the worst drought in 40 years blights countries across the Horn of Africa, millions of lives are hanging in the balance. Even before the latest climate crisis, skilled birth attendance rates were low in Kenya. Despite progress made in recent years, the country still has a high maternal death rate of 342 per 100,000 live births – nearly 90 per cent of which are attributed to inadequate quality of care.

Mathew Bundotich, a medical superintendent at the Katilu hospital, explained that families are now forced to migrate ever further from health facilities in search of water, food and pasture for their animals. Where normally midwives assist at least 60 births every month, he said since the drought took hold the number of ante-natal visits has dwindled.

“We pride ourselves on having recorded zero maternal deaths in our facility over the last year,” said Mr. Bundotich. “But now we have to follow women into their communities in order to reach them.”

A healthcare worker sets up a motorbike ambulance.
Ambulance operator Mark Epeyon is determined to help mothers deliver safely amid the ongoing drought in Kenya. © UNFPA/Luis Tato

All-terrain access

Mr. Epeyon and the hospital’s new motorcycle ambulance are helping them do just that. Donated by UNFPA and its partner the International Rescue Committee in November 2022, the motorbike provides emergency transport to the hospital, often saving their lives as without it they would have no way of getting to their nearest health facility. 

Having worked in the community for more than 11 years, Mr. Epeyon has mastered the art of navigating both on and off-road terrain. He’s able to quickly locate a mother in urgent need of assistance, even in the most inaccessible areas. 

“I became a community health volunteer because I saw the impact that a lack of proper health information and access to services was having on my people,” he told UNFPA. “When my wife got pregnant the first time, she gave birth at home. Our child developed health complications that have affected him into adulthood.”

To reach more women and girls in drought-affected communities, Mr. Epeyon has been going door-to-door, spreading the word about the motorcycle ambulance and encouraging expectant mothers to call him any time they are in need, day or night. In just its first month of operation, the ambulance safely transported five women with obstetric emergencies to hospital, likely saving their lives and those of their newborns. 

A healthcare worker rides a motorbike ambulance.
The ongoing drought has made it much harder for women in Turkana County to access essential health services – a dangerous situation that Mr. Epeyon and his UNFPA motorcycle ambulance are determined to help address. © UNFPA/Luis Tato

Delivering amid adversity 

The motorbike can safely and comfortably transport one patient, an outreach medical worker and emergency supplies for on-site treatment – significantly reducing the time needed to deliver essential assistance to often hard-to-reach communities.

“The stretcher can also be adjusted to the semi-upright position for the safe transfer of expectant mothers and patients with breathing problems,” said Isaac Kiroso from the International Rescue Committee.

“In the past, women have given birth on the roadside while trekking to hospital because they live too far from a health facility,” explained Mr. Epeyon. “With the motorcycle ambulance, even if a woman delivers on the way, she is able to do so in a dignified manner, on a comfortable stretcher and with the help of a health-care worker and myself."

More than 4.3 million people in Kenya are in need of humanitarian assistance due to the ongoing drought, among them 134,000 pregnant or breastfeeding women. Through its Response Plan for the Horn of Africa Drought Crisis 2022-2023, UNFPA is appealing for $113.7 million to protect the sexual and reproductive health and rights of millions of women and girls across the region.

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