Saved by Sea Ambulance: Mothers in remote Philippines give birth safely with a new innovation
22 August 2023
In the midst of great disaster and necessity, innovation and opportunity can often grow.
When typhoon Rai, or Odette as the megastorm is called in the Philippines, hit the southern part of the country in December 2021, 16 million people were affected. Climate change-fueled storms have devastated health infrastructure and left women and girls more at risk of maternal mortality in countries like the Philippines where access to services in remote areas has already been tenuous for decades.
Fantiare Dalar, a resident of the Dinagat Island province, in the northeast of Mindanao, needed to undergo an emergency caesarian delivery to save her premature child. Dinagat District's hospital, that had sustained damage to almost 95% of its infrastructure by the typhoon, was just not equipped to perform the procedure.
Regretfully, doctors told Fantiare that she had to travel to a hospital in the mainland of Surigao—some two hours away by boat. Desperate at the time, Fantiare recalls, “I was bleeding, but I didn’t think I was already in labor. The bleeding didn’t stop and they said it's already dangerous for me and the baby. Instead of thinking of my own survival, I just really wanted my baby to live.”
Coming to her rescue was an innovation unlike others- a "sea ambulance" which brought Fantiare to Surigao where she gave birth safely. She was the first woman to give birth with the support of the sea ambulance.
The sea ambulance was provided by the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) and the Australian government in the aftermath of Typhoon Rai to support pregnant women living in isolated areas. Many services and surgical procedures such as cesarean delivery are only available in hospitals on the mainland, which takes at least two hours to reach. But with the sea ambulance it only takes 30 minutes.
Dr. Lorraine Paulino, who works at the Dinagat District Hospital, says, “Before we received the sea ambulance, we would tell patients, even those requiring emergency treatment, to find their own transportation to the city. Patients can rent a boat at 5000- 6000 Php (approximately USD$100), but most patients cannot afford it. It takes hours to find a boat to rent because some boat owners do not want to take the risk at night, especially when the weather is bad."
Traveling by boat and other unreliable transport options, women would further struggle to call for help without stable phone and internet connectivity.
This has changed with the arrival of the sea ambulance. Custom-made to withstand the waves of Dinagat Islands, the ambulance is equipped with medical equipment and supplies to transport pregnant women in need of medical care. It is equipped with a bed with a privacy curtain, a baby cot, oxygen supplies, a power generator, a stretcher, a refrigerator for medicines, an IV holder, and an air purifier, as well as a siren, search lights, life vests, VHF (very high frequency) radios, lifebuoy and a fire extinguisher. From July to September 2022, it has supported 53 patients, including five high-risk pregnant women.
UNFPA and partners have been looking at new ways to increase access to life-saving services for women in disasters. Through targeted innovations like mobile birth clinics, cash and vouchers for transport and custom-built sea ambulances, UNFPA and partners are helping cover the ‘last mile’ to ensure that all women are able to safely give birth, especially during emergencies.