When the huge shipment of medical supplies and equipment rolled up in October at Malawi’s Kamuzu Central Hospital, a much-needed ventilator was taken off the truck and immediately put to work in the intensive care unit.

In Malawi and other developing countries in Africa, the equipment, medicine and supplies needed to help heal, repair and sustain health are expensive and often out of reach for individuals and their government.

Bridging the Gap Between Life and Death

That’s where MedShare steps in. The nonprofit organization headquartered near Atlanta, Ga., is dedicated to improving health care and the environment through the efficient recovery and redistribution of the surplus of medical supplies to those most in need around the world.

In 2004 the organization and The Coca-Cola Africa Foundation (TCCAF) partnered to help handle the cost of transporting supplies and equipment to hospitals and clinics. In October, MedShare and TCCAF began a three-year commitment that will result in the distribution of millions of dollars' worth of equipment and supplies. Another company, Carlsberg Malawi, also assisted in making the donation in Malawi a reality.

“In order for us to ship a 40-foot container to Africa, we have to have someone to fund it,” says Nell Diallo, a MedShare vice president. “Shipping it from our door to Malawi costs $22,000.”

Over the next three years, TCCAF will spend $800,000 shipping medical equipment and supplies to hospitals in Malawi, Morocco, Cameron, Kenya and Ghana.

The equipment and supplies can bridge the gap between life and death for those who live in developing countries and communities, says Diallo.

“For every 100,000 live births in Malawi, 460 of the mothers die. And they usually die from a complication that would be simple to correct if medical professionals had the resources,” Diallo says.

In a psychiatric hospital in Ghana, four patients often share one bed. And in many areas, malaria, one of the most deadly diseases in Africa, is not properly diagnosed because of the lack of microscopes, she says.

In developing countries, when health care systems can't meet the needs of the people, children are often the hardest hit. According to the World Health Organization, more than 10 million children under the age of 5 die each year in the developing world, due to inadequate medical care. Potentially lifesaving surgeries are canceled because there are no sutures.

“In many hospitals and clinics, doctors write prescriptions, but it is up to the patient to find the medicine,” Diallo says. “Because the demand for hospital care is high and resources are stretched, some patients often share hospital beds, and doctors wash, patch and reuse exam gloves or use plastic bags as protection from diseases like AIDS.

Providing for the vast health care need in Africa is a top priority at MedShare, and the organization has given nearly half of their shipments to address critical health care shortages in African countries. MedShare also plays a major role in providing free supplies to clinics serving the homeless and economically disadvantaged in the United States.

Turning Surplus into Lifesaving Supplies

About 5 million people live in Malawi — a country in southern Africa that is landlocked between Tanzania, Mozambique and Zambia.

Kamuzu Central Hospital, located in the capital city of Lilongwe, is a referral hospital where clinics and medical professionals send patients who are in need of specialized care.

truck with medical supplies

According to Mabel Chinchaga, chief nursing officer at Kamuzu Central, the October shipment arrived just in time. “At the time the donation arrived, we had very few medical supplies, and we had to start using things immediately,” Chinkhata recalls. “Now they are almost gone, except most of those things that can be reused.”

The hospital has 1,000 beds, and on most days occupancy is more than 100 percent, she says.

While hospitals in developing nations lack the equipment and supplies needed to provide care, U.S. hospitals discard an estimated $6.5 billion of medical supplies and equipment each year, much of which is useable surplus that could save lives, according to MedShare. Because of technological changes, regulatory requirements, production overages and procedural excess, the surplus is sent to landfills.

MedShare offers health care facilities and manufacturers an opportunity to divert this surplus from landfills and make it available to hospitals with demonstrated need in the developing world.

Medical officials can look online at the MedShare inventory and make a request for items they need, Diallo explains. The October shipment to Kamuzu Central included crutches, baby scales, walking aides, gloves, hospital beds, anesthesia machines, ultrasound units, IV sets, sutures, surgical drapes and other essential supplies.

A Win-Win Partnership

medical supplies in Malawi

Coca-Cola Central Africa franchise general manager Maserame Mouyeme hands over bio medical equipment to President Mrs Joyce Banda

Here’s how the arrangement will work.

MedShare will send 30 customized tractor-trailer loads of medical supplies and equipment to the five countries.

TCCAF will send three containers a year to each of the two beneficiaries in the five countries. Each container will hold up to 1,000 boxes of medical supplies. Medical professionals at each beneficiary hospital, clinic or public health department will search MedShare’s online inventory and select the contents they need most.

Sometimes when equipment arrives, it is the first of its kind in the area, says Dorcas Onyango, communications manager with TCCAF in Johannesburg, South Africa.

An earlier shipment to Zimbabwe included a CT scanner, or Computed Tomography scan that uses three dimensional x-rays to detect tumors, calcifications, fractures and other medical issues. “To my knowledge, it was the first of its kind in the country,” Onyango says. In the U.S., however, the scanners are not unusual in hospitals and clinics.

“By bringing the equipment here, we are able to save the government money so they can redirect the resources to other health care issues,” says Onyango. In many instances, MedShare also sends technicians to teach local people how to take care of the equipment, which also is a great benefit, she says.

“This means the partnership makes an impact immediately and also over the long run,” says Onyango, who grew up in western Kenya. “Nothing gives me more joy than seeing the delivery of this equipment.”

“I am an African. I know the problems firsthand,” she says. “Some of the people who are being helped come from communities like I do, where you see the problems. There is a lack of quality drinking water. The health systems are stretched by the prevalence of diseases such as malaria and AIDS.

“I am immensely proud of Coca-Cola and what they are doing here.”