Ghana goes high tech to beat measles

Published: 4 January 2002 0:00 CET

Joe Lowry in Accra

It's an incongruous but wonderful sight - a Red Cross volunteer walking through the bush in Western Ghana, Personal Digital Assistant in hand. For two days in December, Ghana Red Cross Society volunteers proved that gizmos and gadgets have as much place in traditional African villages as in the urban jungles of Wall Street or London City.

With so many people living in poverty in West Africa, some might think it inappropriate to use devices worth hundreds of Swiss francs for data collection, when a pen and paper have served well till now. For Rose Donna, from the Business Operation Systems Department of American Red Cross, the dilemma is irrelevant.

"In the past people might have said the same about telephones or fax lines, but now they use them every day," she explains. "This is very simple technology and the beauty of it is that it cuts down on time taken to fill in survey and reduces errors in transcription".

Emmanuel Yaw-Danka, Information officer with GRCS puts it more succinctly: "It saves time, it saves effort, and it might even save lives".The Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) contain a simple survey, asking parents questions like how many children they have, have the children been vaccinated, have they ever had other diseases like TB and malaria, if they sleep under bednets and so on. At the end of the day, surveyors just pop the PDA into a waiting portable computer and the data is ready to be printed out, or emailed anywhere in the world.

Sounds easy? At a training workshop in Cape Coast, Ghana, 56-year-old Obiri Yeboah fingers the device gingerly, and stares in surprise when the screen lights up. One hour later he's the most enthusiastic in the group, showing people half his age how and where to tap the screen.

"I thought it was a tape recorder at first", laughs Obiri. "It's so different from what I am used to, but it's really nice to use. I had never touched a computer an hour ago, and now I can use one!"

Ghana is one of five West African countries where measles vaccination campaigns have been taking place in December 2001.Thanks to partners in the various countries such as UNICEF, WHO, CDC, UN Foundation, Ministries of Health and the American Red Cross Measles Initiative, as well as support from Satellife through the Acumen Fund, the devices were made available to use during the campaign - children have a fighting chance to avoid these major killer diseases.

Ghana Red Cross is reaching out to up to three million people in the country's Central region in order to get all children between the ages of nine months and fourteen years vaccinated.