by Keith Martin MD, Ottawa Citizen Editorial Blog - March 2011
The inability to access the most basic of medical supplies plagues the 2 billion people who exist on less than $2 a day. This is a global tragedy made obscene by the knowledge that vast quantities of perfectly good medical equipment lie unused in our hospitals across North America. But there are solutions to connect these assets with the health care needs of low income countries.
Through CanadaAid – an initiative that brings together governments, the private sector, NGOs and concerned citizens – a multimillion dollar shipment of urgently needed medical supplies just arrived in Pakistan. These supplies are destined for a remote area of the country, Gilgit-Baltistan that was devastated by recent flooding.
Poverty is endemic to this region and as such it has one of the highest rates of maternal mortality in the world. A staggering 300-800 women die from pregnancy related causes for every 100 000 live births.
Health care workers in Gilgit-Baltistan are forever struggling to overcome the deplorable conditions they endure to save the lives of the vulnerable. They work without access to the most basic of needs, such as electricity and clean water.
The massive floods that hit this region last summer created a nightmare. The area’s main highway was often blocked and without this route the movement of essential supplies and medications was halted. Many hospitals were forced to close their doors at a time when their services were needed the most. The remaining hospitals were left overwhelmed and without provisions to anesthetize patients or sterilize equipment. The thought of having to perform a caesarian section on a woman in high-risk labour without anesthesia is unconscionable. Yet, this was the type of situation health care professionals in maternity wards were confronted with.
No woman should die of pregnancy related complications due to a lack of access to basic medical supplies. Finding ways to effectively distribute unused medical supplies to those in need is an easy and inexpensive way to reduce maternal mortality.
It was through CanadaAid that individuals, organizations and governments were connected and mobilized to move essential medications and supplies to Gilgit-Baltistan. Dr. Emma Varley, a Canadian medical anthropologist who has been doing research in the area for 2 years, and Nur-ul-Ain Baig, a former government official working with the hospitals in the region, have worked tirelessly to identify and meet the requirements of local medical centers. They drew up a needs list and this was sent to British Columbian NGOs: the Universal Aide Society (UAS) and the Compassionate Resource Warehouse (CRW). They rallied and organized a 40 foot container of medical equipment, $1million worth of medications, and secured funding and transportation for the supplies to Lahore and Islamabad. In my experience moving the goods is the most difficult aspect of these projects. Since governments have failed to organize a system to do this the UAS and CRW, with the assistance of local hospitals, charities and NGOs, have stepped in to fill this vacuum.
The efforts of the Pakistani High Commission in Ottawa and the Canadian High Commission in Pakistan also deserve enormous credit. They helped to maneuver through the administrative requirements with local governments. Raees Kamil Jan Baigal, a senior auditor at the National Bank of Pakistan, deserves special recognition for his deft navigation through customs processes.
The CanadaAid network mobilized the right people and the right organizations to deliver life-saving medications and equipment on the ground to those who need it the most at a very small cost. However, much more can be done.
Assistance from Canadian Embassies and High Commissions and those of the recipient country can be the difference between the success and failure of these shipments. Their support is crucial to identifying problems, providing local intelligence, trying to ensure customs fees are waived and removing onerous administrative road blocks.
For this shipment less than $20 000 was needed to acquire and transport medical supplies worth millions. Monies came from Human Concern International, the Pakistani Development Fund at the University of Toronto and others.
CanadaAid is a vehicle that leverages minimal amounts of money to move substantial resources and mobilize committed and dedicated development partners in Canada and abroad to assist those in low-income countries. This is a successful mechanism that should be utilized to connect the human and material resources that are available in high income countries with those who need them the most.