Objectives: To quantify the main reasons for referral of infants and children from first-level health facilities to referral hospitals in sub-Saharan Africa and to determine what further supplies, equipment, and legal empowerment might be needed to manage such children when referral is difficult.
Methods: In an observational study at first-level health facilities in Uganda, the United Republic of Tanzania, and Niger, over 3-5 months, we prospectively documented the diagnoses and severity of diseases in children using the standardized Integrated Management of Childhood Illness (IMCI) guidelines. We reviewed the facilities for supplies and equipment and examined the legal constraints of health personnel working at these facilities.
Findings: We studied 7195 children aged 2-59 months, of whom 691 (9.6%) were classified under a severe IMCI classification that required urgent referral to a hospital. Overall, 226 children had general danger signs, 292 had severe pneumonia or very severe disease, 104 were severely dehydrated, 31 had severe persistent diarrhoea, 207 were severely malnourished, and 98 had severe anaemia. Considerably more ill were 415 young infants aged one week to two months: nearly three-quarters of these required referral. Legal constraints and a lack of simple equipment (suction pumps, nebulizers, and oxygen concentrators) and supplies (nasogastric tubes and 50% glucose) could prevent health workers from dealing more appropriately with sick children when referral was not possible.
Conclusion: When referral is difficult or impossible, some additional supplies and equipment, as well as provision of simple guidelines, may improve management of seriously ill infants and children.