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Dialed in to Tanzanian health care

Queen’s University researcher Karen Yeates has received $1 million in funding to develop a mobile platform to record and monitor the health of pregnant women. The five-year project will implement and test ways of improving the monitoring of pregnant women in Tanzania for preeclampsia-eclampsia and other important health outcomes.

One in five maternal and child deaths in Tanzania – one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa – are caused by preeclampsia-eclampsia. This condition is common in both developed and developing countries and is a major killer of women in lower resource settings such as Tanzania.  If unrecognized, and left untreated, preeclampsia can lead to poor outcomes or death in women and their newborns.  Preeclampsia is a condition in pregnancy that is often recognized by the rising blood pressure of a woman in the last few months of pregnancy.

Karen Yeates examines a women at a clinic in Tanzania.

“Many women in Tanzania deliver their babies outside of a health centre, usually at home, and have limited access during the pregnancy for health-care providers to detect rising blood pressure and its complications,” Dr. Yeates says. “Making the diagnosis of preeclampsia through blood pressure monitoring and treating it appropriately is a key step in preventing maternal deaths and poor outcomes in newborns.”

Dr. Yeates already has a research program in Tanzania that is using mobile phone technology to connect people with high blood pressure to health-care providers and the health-care system.  She hopes to use this knowledge and her mobile platform to reach women who do not have good access to perinatal health-care services. In fact, African countries have been widespread “adopters” of mobile technology and 80 per cent of people in sub-Saharan African have access to cellphones and one third of those devices are smartphones.

“Using a mobile health platform, we are going to tackle this issue,” Dr. Yeates says. “We want to connect women with health-care providers to monitor blood pressure and general health of pregnant women and their babies. Our team will try to close the health-care gap using technology.”

Dr. Yeates is working with Graeme Smith (Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology), Chandra Tayade (Biomedical and Molecular Sciences) and Jessica Sleeth (Office of Global Health) from Queen’s University and partnering with Godfrey Mbaruku, an obstetrician working with the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. The Tanzanian Ministry of Health and Social Welfare are also involved in the project.

“During the first year we will be conducting a health system appraisal to learn how a pregnant woman currently navigates the health system and figuring out the logistics to determine how best to make this program work,” Dr. Yeates says. “Once the five years is finished, the success of the program will be based on how many lives were saved.”

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper announced last week that Dr. Yeates’ project and 19 other projects would each receive $1 million to focus on improving maternal, newborn and child health on a global scale. The $20 million funding announcement is part of a seven year, $36 million program administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada (DFATD), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).