Surgery in Africa is a Crap Shoot. A Big Grant by the GE Foundation Aims to Change That

If you ever find yourself heading into surgery at a hospital in sub-Saharan Africa, best of luck. Many of these places lack basic resources we've long taken for grant granted in developed countries. The result is that lots of people die for preventable reasons. A case in point: high anesthesia mortality rates.

A recent $3 million gift to Vanderbilt University by the GE Foundation is aimed at helping to reduce these rates.

Here are a few stats for an idea of what the hospital situation looks like in sub-Saharan Africa: According to a 2009 study conducted in the small country of Sierra Leone, 60 percent of the hospitals had interrupted oxygen supplies, 40 percent had no oxygen, and only 20 percent had functioning anesthesia equipment. There is also a massive shortage of pulse oximetry machines across the continent. These machines measure a patient’s oxygen saturation level and are considered an essential patient monitoring device during surgery in developing countries.

Even if hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa had adequate oxygen flow, electricity, and all the equipment they needed to perform surgery safely, 100 percent of the time, it would be putting the cart before the horse. Sub-Saharan Africa does not have enough qualified anesthesiologists to staff operating rooms. In Kenya, it’s estimated that there is only one anesthesiologist for every 13 surgeons. This is what experts in the field often refer to as a "hard stop" issue, meaning, it doesn’t have a work around.

The lack of anesthesiologists, proper equipment, adequate electricity, water and oxygen flow are all contributing factors to the high anesthesia-related mortality rates in sub-Saharan Africa, a rate higher than anywhere in the world. 

Jay Ireland, the CEO of GE Africa says, “Without access to safe anesthesia, critical issues such as maternal and infant mortality rates cannot be improved.” Although the maternal mortality rate in the area has been improving over the last two decades, Sub-Saharan Africa still accounts for over 50 percent of maternal deaths worldwide. Caesarean sections are the most common surgery in the area, so it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that improving the surgical outcomes of C-sections will also go toward improving infant and maternal mortality rates in the region.

The Vanderbilt University International Anesthesia (VIA) program has had a presence in sub-Saharan Africa for a number of years. VIA offers anesthesia training and education programs to local medical professionals in clinical and classroom settings. The program also offers simulation training, which can be a great hands-on teaching tool.

GEs recent $3 million grant will allow the program to expand its efforts in the region to include a wider swath of medically underserved and rural areas. The VIA will also use a portion of the grant money toward replicating its program in developing countries around the world.