Tuesday, March 17, 2009

But say a prayer, pray for the other ones... Dismal health care in Northern Ghana

The only gift they'll get this year is life... (Bono and the Live Aid Band chiming in)... That's if they're lucky. The Northern Region of Ghana, which is about the size of that state of Louisiana or the entire country of Czech Republic HAS ONLY ONE AMBULANCE.

The population of Ghana’s Northern Region is roughly two million people. Honestly, this is insanity. We came face to face with the dismal reality of the non-existent health care system of Northern Ghana this weekend.

Despite years upon years of development projects catering to the North, and many specifically at building the capacity of the hospitals and clinics (one only has to Google Aid Northern Ghana to see), there is absolutely NOTHING there. On the ground, in the district towns and capitals, let alone the villages. Nothing. No skills, no supplies, no knowledge or any care at all for the value of human life.

On Sunday one of the drivers from our office managed to ‘kill’ a seemingly unbreakable and reliable Nissan Patrol, on route with some of the company engineers to do a customer installation at a site in the North. From Accra, with the bad roads, this drive can be 17 hours. They called from the side of the road with the bad news that they were now stranded in the middle of nowhere with a massive hunk of non-functioning metal and rubber. And all their equipment. The plan was to find a tow truck, which they miraculously did within an hour, and they set off again.

Within an hour we had a call that they had hitched up the company 4x4 to the tow, and then had ever so brightly gotten right back into our car, with no brakes etc. and embarked on the next few bumpy hours journey being towed along.

Except not. Disaster struck. The story, like many Ghana stories, seems unfathomable, yet the outcome pretty disastrous. Apparently a group of motorcycles (somehow I just can’t picture a gang of menacing Harley riders up on the roads of the North, lined by mud huts, shepards and families of emaciated cows and goats…)

The motorcyclists abruptly drove into the lane of our tow truck driver, who swerved violently in reaction. Somehow both the tow truck and our Patrol rolled three times and landed in the bush upside down. Interestingly car accidents are one of the main causes of death in Ghana and fatalities (from a 2006 survey) are double of that of South Africa which has double the population of Ghana, and over 4 times that of Canada which has a third higher population. (I’m guessing a big reason is the way the injured are dealt with after the crash).

When the dust settled our guys all climbed out of the vehicle and it was discovered that one had suffered some facial injuries, while another of our engineers had broken his arm in numerous places. Both needed medical attention immediately. But there was none.

They were taken presumably by a taxi to the closest ‘hospital’ (I use this term VERY loosely), in a town called Bole. On arrival they were told there were no doctors, no medicines, nothing to build a cast for a broken arm, and no equipment at all to test for anything at all. Just a dirty, dusty concrete building with some women sitting at a table. I can just imagine the treatment rooms, where the women and children lie on mats on the floor, no beds, no services… just a place to die.

Eventually – a few hours later – despite the extreme pain and suffering of our engineers, they were brought by taxi to Wa – the district capital, for treatment. It was 8pm on a Sunday night. No doctors. Without doctors, the nurses claim they cannot deliver first aid… So the guys waited it out until morning.

Only when morning came there were still no doctors, and once again they were told – nothing with which to cast a broken limb, no medicines, no supplies. They waited all day Monday, while down in Accra we called frantically around for a solution. They needed to get the 100kms to Tamale – the bigger town, where they could fly on a commercial airline back to Accra to be treated. By this time we had heard that the engineer with the broken arm could not sit (possibly due to internal injuries), and we needed to find an ambulance to bring him to Tamale. Apparently there was no ambulance available. This is when we discovered the hideous truth about the one ambulance for the whole region, which was ‘busy’ in Tamale. Knowing Ghana, it was being hired for a funeral… go figure. What we discovered was that there was not even a vehicle in the town of Wa that could take them…

So in our desperation, knowing the dangers of internal injuries, and the very real possibility of the bones in his arm healing in the wrong shape, we tried to find a way to fly them back to Accra. We called a local aviation company who said they could charter a flight for USD $12,000. Only they couldn’t get the plane organized until Saturday – 5 days away!!! We called on a foreign owned and run medical rescue company operating in Ghana that services International companies who are members. We are not members. They responded that they could send a fully medically equipped plane first thing in the morning. It would cost Euro14,000!!!!

Eventually they did manage to find a car and made the bumpy journey, all their injuries notwithstanding, back to Tamale and this morning they caught the commercial flight to Accra. They are now both admitted to a local hospital. Even these Accra clinics and hospitals pose serious questions about the quality of health care.
But the question is – what do the locals in Northern Ghana do in these cases? And the sad but true answer is that they suffer and they die.

Billions of dollars in Aid has poured in… Where has it gone? Why is there nothing?

Why doesn’t the government stop building palaces and start building real hospitals? Why did they spend over $60 million in largely unaccounted for sums on the 'Ghana @ 50' Independence Celebrations when the real needs are ignored completely? What exactly are we celebrating? What indeed.
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HNG said...

This sounds like something out of Sudan or Chad. Those accounts in Western media about Ghana's rising star must make you laugh out loud. Makes me think I'm luckier in my area: 3 modestly equipped govt-funded hospitals serving about 100k people, more hospitals (majority private) in the nearest big town, about an our away by car. Bad but passable roads--some now being paved or repaved.

The pale observer said...

Thanks for the comment - those articles in the Western media make me gag, because it feeds the west's guilty pleasure in pumping useless aid in, instead of making this government accountable!!! :)

Your area sounds cary too though - what do u do if you need a doctor?

HNG said...

There are people here who are so poor they've never seen a doctor in their lives--teeth rot away and fall, injuries are left to heal on their own. Health care is a luxury, so they don't think about it. The situation is exacerbated by corruption: Nurses at the lcal hospital steal meds intended for the poor, and the ambulance is almost always out of gas--not because it's used to ferry patients from A to B, but because hospital employees use the van to run personal errands.

The wealthier can get in their cars or summon a taxi to take a relative to the better hospitals in the nearby town. The private health-care industry is thriving in the major urban centers. I suspect that holds true for Ghana as well.

The pale observer said...

The trouble in Ghana is that there virtually is no 'better' hospitals to go to? All the rich politicians here fly to South Africa and Europe for even the most basic treatment!

The pale observer said...

The trouble in Ghana is that there virtually is no 'better' hospitals to go to? All the rich politicians here fly to South Africa and Europe for even the most basic treatment!

Anonymous said...

The irony is here in New York, I know of several Ghanaian doctors, known for their kind bedside manor, efficiency, and ability to put children at ease. It is going to be a long slog.

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