Choppers for doctors: Motorcycles help health workers traverse Lesotho’s mountains

Posted on 10/01/08

By Tom Spoth


A medical worker practices riding a new Honda CTX200 motorcycle at a recent training in Lesotho.

In Lesotho, it’s difficult to get around. Villages in the mountain kingdom are sometimes accessible only by single-engine propeller aircraft or on horseback.

Lesotho experiences extreme weather: floods, snowstorms, and high winds. There are often no roads in rural areas and patients must walk hours to clinics, which is extremely difficult for the critically ill. Transporting patients and medical supplies is often an ordeal.

Since arriving in Lesotho in 2006, Partners In Health's partner organization in Lesotho (PIHL) has grappled with the problem of moving people and things. PIHL formed partnerships with the Lesotho Flying Doctors Service and Mission Aviation Fellowship to facilitate air transport. Now, PIHL is adding motorcycles to the mix through a new arrangement with the nonprofit Riders for Health.

Riders for Health is sending 120 ultra-rugged motorcycles to Lesotho. The Honda CTX200 is a special, no-frills bike made for the outback ranchers of Australia. The machines have features such as enclosed chains and handlebar protectors that make them ideal for the harsh conditions of Africa.

So far, Riders for Health has delivered nine motorcycles for use by PIHL staff, eight of whom have been trained to ride the bikes. The vehicles are expected to greatly enhance health-care delivery, allowing health workers to regularly and reliably visit communities previously inaccessible except on foot. In addition to visiting patients, PIHL staff can also use the bikes to transport samples back to the lab for testing, and to screen neighbours and family members of the patients for health problems--uses that are particularly important to PIHL's multidrug-resistant tuberculosis program.

Riders for Health’s first-ever program started in Lesotho in 1991, running a fleet of 47 motorcycles that ran for seven years without a single breakdown. Mahali Hlasa, a dedicated health professional who qualified as the first “rider trainer” under Riders for Health in 1991, is now the program director of Riders’ new program in Lesotho. Riders’ return to Lesotho was prompted by the rapid and alarming decline of the country's public-health status following the growth of HIV/AIDS and associated TB.

“We are delighted to be working in Lesotho once again with such fantastic partners,” said Andrea Coleman, co-founder and CEO of Riders for Health. “Partners In Health is effective in a way rarely seen in development, but by ensuring that their dedicated staff has access to reliable transportation, this innovative partnership will help to make their vital work even more effective and efficient.”

Riders for Health now has 230 employees in Africa, all of whom are nationals of the countries in which it works (Zimbabwe, the Gambia, Nigeria, Kenya and Tanzania). The organization manages more than 1,200 vehicles, 900 of which are used for direct health delivery, and helps provide basic health care to 10.8 million people.

PIHL began in June 2006 with a focus on bringing HIV and TB care and treatment to poor, rural communities that have largely been neglected by other AIDS programs and non-governmental organizations. Approximately one quarter of Lesotho's adult population is HIV-positive and life expectancy has plummeted to less than 35 years. Lesotho's TB rate is the fourth highest in the world. PIHL provides clinical support, training for nurses and village health workers and medications for treatment of HIV/AIDS and TB. The program also offers outreach and treatment for prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV and conducts home visits and educational meetings in villages.

[posted October 2008]