Saving lives in Africa: the Scots charity on a mission to expand first aid

It started with an undergraduate’s belief in equal access to healthcare and a handful of volunteers to support him.

But First Aid Africa, which Sam Abrahams launched as a student society at Heriot-Watt University, is now an international charity providing emergency medical support in sub-Saharan Africa, where injury is the leading cause of death and most die before reaching hospital.

With new funding from the Scottish Government small grants scheme, First Aid Africa is developing an online resource that could double the amount of people that access first aid training.

Sam says: “The number of people needed is immense. If we look at need on the ground, the people we have trained represent the tip of the iceberg.”

The Scottish charity has already taught first aid to 40,000 volunteers,  including over 700 from the UK.

After 60 hours’ training, First Aid Africa volunteers pass on vital skills in first aid, training local communities with support from partners in Malawi, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda.

Sam knows the importance of access to life-saving healthcare. At 16, he was in a coma for three days after crashing 20ft onto his back in a canyoning accident. “Others in the ward didn’t make it. I felt very lucky. I decided to go out and tell others not to jump off cliffs!”

A few years later Sam was leading a team of lifeguards, but it was then on a gap year in Africa that he knew he wanted to do more.

“A friend died on the way to hospital after he was hit by a truck and thrown 40ft. It was essentially blood loss. I saw many preventable deaths. I had to do something.”

One shocking fact hasn’t changed since then; injury is the leading cause of preventable death, killing more people in sub-Saharan Africa than HIV, Malaria or any other illness.

In rural communities most can access a hospital within a few hours but for some hospital care can mean walking for days.

With the recent £59,000 funding, many thousands more will get access to first aid information through community first responders, and online. In the reality of an emergency, nothing beats hands-on training – but tapping into smartphone technology will help get more get to hospital in time.

Sam says: “Real experience is best in training but giving people an opportunity to respond in an emergency will make communities safer; it will save lives.”

The new resource goes live in June. First Aid Africa will be equipped to send in site-specific trained volunteers who can give initial treatment, locate the nearest hospital online and notify doctors that they are en route.

Sam (below) says: “The optimum is that we have enough people trained in person who can then use online resources to jog their memories in an emergency. Volunteers and lay people can use it to follow on-screen instructions on how to stop a bleed, or protect and mobilise a casualty.”

Trained volunteers can make all the difference in an emergency, even helping with basic trauma care. Recently, after a school in Kenya collapsed, a group of volunteers treated children with head injuries. Two survived. Without intervention, it’s likely they would have died.

The impact of First Aid Africa’s work goes beyond emergency response; there is a ripple effect across rural communities.

Sam, who has worked in East Africa for 10 years, says: “You see a difference when instructors have the confidence to intervene in an emergency.

“It’s normally women people go to for help. Training has this positive effect on their families and the entire community. We recently had a trainee who went on to become regional representative for the Red Cross. It makes me so proud that people can be so empowered.”

Sam grew up learning the value of helping others. His grandparents worked as missionaries in Japan, his mum works for a leading children’s charity, and his sister worked overseas. “I grew up with strong women. I am the runt of the litter!” he laughs.

The 30-year-old says he has learned a lot since he set up First Aid Africa in 2008. “It’s always community-led. Not about Western handouts or importing equipment. We learned that doesn’t work. Instead of using expensive bandages that people weren’t using, we use sanitary towels to dress wounds. It’s more of a Bear Grylls approach!”

The World Health Organisation estimates that 5.8 million deaths annually are attributable to injuries, 90% of them in developing countries, with mortality rates expected to increase with urban and industrial development.

Yet first aid is still not a global, headline public health issue. Sam is frustrated and plans to campaign to change this – in Africa and closer to home.

“First aid should be on the curriculum in schools along with literacy and numeracy. Equal access to healthcare is a right we all have. It’s not about being in a rich or poor country.

“In Africa the reality is that death is not the only cost of injury. People living with injuries like serious burns can’t contribute to society. We plan to look at how we can help reduce the impact of long term complications.”

Despite the scale of the challenge Sam is ready. “We have world-class experts and innovative local doctors in Tanzania and volunteers who give thousands of hours of their life. That is the most humbling thing. It’s motivation to keep doing it.”

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