news
Published: 02 May 2013

Saving lives in Africa

Dr Karen Ballard spent an extraordinary year working with mothers-to-be in Ethiopia

Many women had never looked at themselves in a mirror, let alone seen their unborn baby via an ultrasound scan, before Dr Karen Ballard visited their local health centre.

The senior lecturer in women’s health spent a year working on a research project in rural Ethiopia, which has one of the worst maternal mortality rates in the developing world. Her project investigated whether introducing ultrasound scan clinics into existing antenatal clinics would encourage more women at risk of a complicated delivery to seek appropriate, often life-saving, antenatal care.

The second-hand portable ultrasound machine Dr Ballard brought to Ethiopia gave pregnant women the chance to see their unborn babies for the first time, and saw attendance rates at the antenatal clinics rocket. The scans enabled nurses to identify women at high risk of complications during their pregnancy and encourage them to attend hospital to deliver their babies — a rarity in Ethiopia, where 90% of births take place at home.

During her research, Dr Ballard saw first-hand the reality of working in health clinics which don’t have running water or enough medication, and where power cuts often mean delivering babies by candle light.

Dr Ballard, who travelled to Ethiopia with charity Maternity Worldwide, said: “It was a lifelong ambition of mine to work in a developing country. Ethiopia has an enormous maternal health problem and 85% of the population live in very remote areas with few resources, so it’s a place with a huge amount of need.

“It was a great experience. A lot of people say to me: ‘Have you changed things?’ The answer is that you can’t change big things out there, the systems are the way they are, but what you can do is to change the pathway for individuals you come across, you can change the life of a family, and you hope to inspire the nurses you meet and work with.”