Electricity: The Stuff of Dreams

Global health goals will never be achieved unless we also find a way to dramatically scale up access to modern energy services in the developing world.

Take Ebola, for example. "It is very difficult to take care of critically ill patients in the dark; fluid resuscitation depends on being able to place and replace intravenous lines", says Dr. Paul Farmer, co-founder of Partners In Health (PIH), a Boston-based healthcare NGO that has recently joined in the global fight to stop the spread of Ebola in West Africa.

Weak health systems, argues Dr. Farmer, are largely to blame for the rapid spread of Ebola and its high fatality rates. Places like Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea simply don't have the "staff, stuff, and systems", he says, to deal effectively with an outbreak of this nature.

When Paul Farmer mentions "stuff" in the context of health systems, it's not just things such as lights, centrifuges, and x-ray machines to which he is referring. It's electricity as well.

But here's the sad thing about electricity: even though it is a cornerstone of modern civilization--just think about how quickly and dramatically our lives come to a screeching halt whenever we're subjected to even a brief power outage--there are still some 1.2 billion people on the planet who can't even turn on a light bulb at night let alone enjoy any of the other basic amenities that most of us take for granted. Energy poverty exacts a huge toll on the health, education, and economic well-being of people, mostly in rural parts of the developing world, who live beyond the reach of an electric power grid. And yet, until recently energy access was not a priority among many of the world's leading foundations, aid agencies, NGOs, and philanthropists. Fortunately, public opinion is starting to change. Two years ago the United Nations launched its Sustainable Energy for All Initiative, and acknowledged that modern energy is a key to achieving the Millennium Development Goals.

A recent survey by the World Health Organization found that a quarter of all health facilities in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, and in some countries the percentage is significantly higher. Without electricity, these facilities have no way to provide lighting for childbirth, store vaccines, or power medical devices, to name but a few of the services that are essential for modern healthcare.

Several promising vaccines for Ebola could become available in the coming months. But how will these vaccines be stored at their required temperatures in parts of Liberia, Guinea, and Sierra Leone where electricity supply is limited or non-existent?

One possibility, of course, is to use propane-powered vaccine refrigerators, but an even better solution might be to deploy solar-powered units that do not depend upon an external fuel source. In fact, solar energy, which in many cases is now cheaper and more reliable than diesel, can be used to power not just vaccine refrigerators but much of the other equipment needed in a modern health facility.

The Ebola virus, as with any contagion in today's hyper-connected world, knows no boundaries. It's encouraging to see the global response to this viral threat, but if we're serious about putting in place the "staff, stuff, and systems" required for a more robust health infrastructure in West Africa and elsewhere in the developing world, let us not forget about electricity and the critical role it plays in powering all the "stuff" needed to bring this dream of improved health--and many others--to fruition.