Case study

Last night an SMS saved my life

How an innovative texting service is helping mothers and babies in Rwanda

Labour pains

The night that Febronie gave birth to her son Eric, both of their lives were saved by a text message.

Cradling her week-old baby in her arms, Febronie tells how her labour pains came suddenly in the middle of the night, and with such force that she could not get out of bed.

“I was scared for me and for my baby,” she said. “I knew I could not walk the hour and a half to reach the nearest health centre.”

A good neighbour

Instead, she sent her husband, Enoch, out into the rain to call on their neighbour Helene. A community health worker in the village for the past 4 years, Helene was used to helping women through the early stages of labour.

But when she reached Febronie’s home, she could see that she was almost ready to give birth. If the scene had taken place a year ago, Febronie would have been forced to have her child at home - without any equipment or midwife to help her.

Around the world, 50 million births a year happen without a skilled birth attendant present, and between one and two thirds of all maternal deaths happen at home. A woman in Rwanda has a 1 in 35 chance of dying in childbirth, compared with a 1 in 4,700 chance in the UK.

Innovative solution

But fortunately for Febronie and her baby, Helene is one community health worker helping to pilot a new text messaging service run by the Rwandan ministry of health, and supported by UK aid: RapidSMS.

The system gives health workers the opportunity to quickly contact doctors and nurses at health centres that are often miles away, getting responses almost immediately. Using codes such as FE for fever, UN for unconscious and HE for haemorrhaging, the health worker can get rapid advice or support.

As soon as she saw the pain Febronie was in, Helene sent a message: ‘High Risk’, and almost immediately received the response ‘ambulance on its way’. Minutes later the ambulance arrived and whisked Febronie to a health centre where she gave birth to Eric in a clean maternity room, supported by the care of a nurse and with the aftercare needed for both mother and baby. 

Ambitious plans

As part of new plans for the UK to double the number of lives saved in pregnancy and childbirth in the world’s poorest countries by 2015, UK aid will help over 5,000 more women in Rwanda to give birth in the safety of a health centre.

Speaking on a visit to Rwanda where he saw the RapidSMS service in action, International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said:

“We take it for granted in the UK that when we have an emergency, we can pick up the phone and call for an ambulance. For millions of people around the world, that is not the case. This innovative new text messaging service is giving Rwandans a lifeline - and people across Britain can be proud that we have helped to make it a possibility.”

Updates to this page

Published 21 December 2010