Rx for Survival — A Global Health Challenge

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Global Health Champions

Andrea ColemanBarry Coleman

Andrea and Barry Coleman

Riders for Health

Andrea and Barry Coleman trace their calling in global health to a seemingly unrelated passion: a shared love of motorcycles. In their native Scotland, Andrea was one of the first British women to race motorcycles professionally, and Barry was a journalist who covered the sport. When Barry traveled to Africa to write an article about a humanitarian organization, he was struck by the number of broken-down motorcycles and vehicles he saw across the continent, especially in the countryside, where roads — if they exist at all — are frequently unpaved.

In rural areas worldwide, residents of remote villages that may be 20 miles from the nearest clinic or field hospital are often out of luck when a medical emergency arises. Without ambulances to transport them, thousands of people, including children, die each year on the long walk to the hospital.

But Andrea and Barry saw that the means of transportation was there. Together they founded Riders for Health, an organization with the mission of providing health care workers with motorcycles, which are excellent for Africa's rugged roads and terrain. The other part of its mission is to help health providers keep their vehicles operating in places where there are almost no spare parts or service stations.

The Colemans train local people to maintain vehicles, prevent breakdowns, and keep a supply of spare parts. They have also invented a vehicle they call the Uhuru (the Swahili word for "freedom") — a motorcycle with a sidecar ambulance attached. Community health workers use the Uhuru to visit their clients and to transport pregnant women or very sick people to clinics or hospitals.

Community nurse Manyo Gibba is a Rider for Health. She watches over the health of people in 16 villages in rural areas of the Gambia, in western Africa. In a country where there are few hospitals or clinics and where one in 14 mothers dies in childbirth, Gibba's home visits are critical. Fifteen thousand people rely on her, so it's crucial that she be able to make her rounds. Riders for Health has trained her to perform simple maintenance on her motorcycle, but will send a technician to handle more complicated repairs.

Gibba says her means of transportation raises some eyebrows: "People do joke with me. They find it funny to see a female riding a motorcycle — even my mom. I told her, 'Well, it's part of my job; I have to do it.'"

Andrea Coleman says it's still a struggle to raise funds for Riders for Health: "It's difficult to persuade people that what we're doing is really a solution to many of the health issues in Africa, because they look at the communities and see people living in 13th-century conditions, so they assume what's appropriate is a 13th-century solution — an ox cart, a donkey cart. We know that what's appropriate to save lives is to use 21st-century technology properly managed. You can't save a child unless you can reach her."

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