MAF radio technology helps reduce maternal mortality in Papua New Guinea

Published: 22 Sep 2020

Dr Kirby using newly installed HF radio at THOR's headquarters (Credit: Gollinson Wena)

For the past decade, MAF partner - ‘The Hands of Rescue Foundation’ has been saving women and babies’ lives with critical support, but their communications system needed a drastic overhaul. They turned to technical gurus 'MAF Technologies PNG’ for help…     

According to the UN’s Human Development Index, there are 230 deaths for every 100,000 births in Papua New Guinea compared to the UK’s 12 out of every 100,000 births.

In the early noughties, Barry Kirby was working in Papua New Guinea as a carpenter when he witnessed the traumatic death of a woman in labour. He decided that the country needed more doctors than carpenters and so re-trained as a doctor at the age of 40.

In 2011, Dr Kirby founded ‘The Hands of Rescue Foundation’ (THOR) with the sole purpose of reducing maternal mortality within Papua New Guinea’s Milne Bay Province, which comprises of some 600 islands.  

THOR encourages women from the islands to give birth in the 19 health centres across the province, rather than at home unsupervised. Other women come to a health centre after they have given birth but can still die.

With home births in remote areas, there is a greater risk of death during or after labour for both mother and baby if they run into complications. At home, problems are generally not identified until it is too late.

THOR offers expectant mothers a range of incentives and support to avoid home births and medically trains health centre staff to deliver babies more safely.

Founding CEO, Dr Kirby, and his wife, Kila, have seen the work of THOR flourish: 

THOR reduces maternal mortality by 70%

After two years, THOR reduced maternal mortality in the province by 70% and in 2016 they purchased an amphibious aircraft to medevac pregnant mothers in more complicated cases.

But for Dr Barry Kirby, this wasn’t enough.

Mobile phone coverage is poor in Papua New Guinea, so having more than one mode of communication is essential, especially when providing a life-saving service.

With such unreliable and intermittent communication, it was increasingly difficult for THOR to respond urgently to the needs of the remote health centres around the islands whose mothers often needed round the clock emergency assistance.

Dr Kirby required reliable communication and an alarm system to coordinate emergency assistance, but simply didn’t have the funds or know-how to buy and install such technology.

Thanks to generous support from ‘Energy Queensland’ and ‘Mobile Communication, Queensland’, MAF Technologies PNG was able to install HF (high frequency) radio technology, which would solve THOR’s communication woes. 

‘Good communication helps us to reduce maternal deaths. It’s fantastic!’

Dr Kirby, Founding CEO of ‘The Hands of Rescue Foundation’

Sander Van Middendorp from MAF Technologies PNG installing the HF aerial on the roof of THOR

Reliable communications 24/7

MAF Technologies PNG engineers, Gollinson Wena and Sander Van Middendorp, installed a crossover from HF (high frequency) radio at THOR’s headquarters to VHF (very high frequency) in Dr Kirby's house to a hand-held radio located in Dr Kirby's car.

This means emergency calls can now be transferred and received in three different locations 24/7. Dr Kirby is delighted with the results:

‘We have been working towards this for a long time. We reached out to MAF and I’m very proud to say that we’ve got the latest in Codan technology with the HF radio crossover.

The system works very well - we can now reach out to the health centres. We do a ‘ward round’ every day on the HF radio and at night, I can transfer it across to the VHF in my house.

Radio communication with the health centres during the ‘ward rounds’ enables us to work out which mothers have more complex cases. Now we can plan ahead and hopefully prevent further problems from happening.

After many years, we’ve finally got our 24/7 alarm centre and we’re very grateful to MAF for installing it. Thank you very much!’

This system now enables 24/7 reliable communication between THOR and the remote health centres across Milne Bay Province. They can directly contact Dr Kirby for assistance at any time.

Dr Kirby also uses the system to conduct weather checks before flying out to the islands.

This newly installed HF radio system saves Dr Kirby precious time, which ultimately save lives in Milne Bay Province.

Dr Kirby using recently installed hand-held radio tech in his car