Blantyre — Malawian mothers and guardians of young children who live in villages far from health facilities are heaving a sigh of relief, after the introduction of a hotline through which they can access medical advice. VillageReach, a non-profit NGO, is running a program called Chipatala Cha Pa Foni which means Health Center by Phone.
Malawi has some of the highest mother and child mortality rates in the world. The maternal mortality ratio is at 675 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births, while the under-five mortality rate is 112 deaths per 1,000 births.
The figures are largely attributed to limited availability of timely and reliable health information for women of childbearing age, and a lack of access to health care for villagers due to long distances.
VillageReach officials say the phone program, which is currently run in the districts of Balaka, Mulanje, Nkhota-kota and Ntcheu, aims to bridge this information gap.
"This is a toll-free case management hotline, which means people can call free from any Airtel [mobile phone service provider] phone and can ask their questions concerning any health issues," explained Zachariah Jezman, the program manager. "And apart from that component, we have also a reminder and tips service. In addition to that we have protocol approved messages, which are either posted to clients who have personal phone or which can be retrieved by a client without a phone by using any Airtel phone."
According to Jezman, two complementary services extend the health centers' reach by providing Malawians with access to accurate health information.
He said the clients are handled by hotline workers who are trained personnel in maternal, newborn, and children's health. The workers use a simple touch-screen device that records data electronically for monitoring and evaluation purposes. They are supervised by trained nurses for quality assurance.
Balaka Center hotline nurse supervisor Novice Gauti tells VOA the center receives between 25 and 30 calls each day from mothers and guardians who seek medical advice.
Gauti said along with providing crucial help for people in remote villages, Chipatala Cha pa Foni has helped reduce queues in the health facilities.
"Now the queues at the hospitals are very small compared to the time when there was no Chipatala cha pa Foni, because the mothers were just rushing to the hospital with minor problems," she noted. " But now when they have minor problems or discomfort they can easily and comfortably call us from their home and seek medical advice or medical care."
The program has faced challenges, too. Jezman cites health facilities' failure to meet the demand for services.
"I can give you an example when there was national stock-out of iron tablets for maybe six weeks. Our system was pushing the message that 'If you are in the second trimester you need to start taking iron tablets'. And the clients were going to health centers demanding iron tablets while the health system did not have that," Jezman recalled.
He said another challenge is that Chipatala Cha pa Foni encourages pregnant mothers to start doctor visits in the first trimester, but most health centers in Malawi do not have pregnancy test kits and instead rely on palpation, which sometimes is not 100 percent correct for pregnancy tests.
Nevertheless, VillageReach is pleased with the program's results. The organization's country director, Jessica Crawford, told VOA that VillageReach is working on a strategy to scale up the program to other areas so it can benefit more people across Malawi.