Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Paediatric surgery and anaesthesia in south-western Uganda: a cross-sectional survey

Isabeau A Walker a, Apunyo D Obua b, Falan Mouton c, Steven Ttendo d & Iain H Wilson e

a. Great Ormond Street Hospital NHS Trust, London, WC1N 3JH, England.
b. University of Mbarara, Mbarara, Uganda.
c. University of Rochester Medical School, Rochester, United States of America.
d. Mbarara University Teaching Hospital, Mbarara, Uganda.
e. Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust, Exeter, England.

Correspondence to Isabeau A Walker (e-mail: walkei@gosh.nhs.uk).

(Submitted: 07 February 2010 – Revised version received: 21 May 2010 – Accepted: 28 May 2010 – Published online: 07 June 2010.)

Bulletin of the World Health Organization 2010;88:897-906. doi: 10.2471/BLT.10.076703


Despite increasing awareness of the unmet burden of surgical conditions, little information is available on surgery and anaesthesia in children.1 It has been estimated that 85% of children in low-income countries are likely to require treatment for a surgical condition by the age of 15 years.2 Many surgical conditions of childhood are amenable to simple surgical intervention, but if left untreated, complications, lifelong disability or death can ensue.3

The World Health Organization (WHO) Global Initiative for Emergency and Essential Surgical Care was established in 2005 to strengthen the delivery of surgical care in low-income countries.4 WHO has defined the types of essential and emergency surgery that should be undertaken and the kind of surgical staff, infrastructure and supplies required in three levels of health-care facilities: level 1, small hospitals/health centres; level 2, district/provincial hospitals; and level 3, referral hospitals.5,6 WHO has also proposed standardized metrics for global surgical surveillance.7 Recent surveys suggest that essential resources are not in place in rural hospitals in low-income countries.810

Uganda, a low-income country, faces considerable challenges in the provision of paediatric surgical care. Of its rapidly-growing population of 31.7 million, 49% is under 15 years of age and 88% lives in rural areas. Uganda's population demographics, expenditure on health care and health-care outcomes are typical of low-income countries in sub-Saharan Africa.11,12 Postgraduate training opportunities for physicians are limited; only 10 trainees complete postgraduate training in surgery in the country each year.

Whereas published surveys of surgical activity in sub-Saharan Africa have focused on single institutions,2,3,13 this study is a regional survey of surgical activity and surgical facilities in all hospitals that were performing paediatric surgery in 2007–2008 in the south-western part of Uganda. Specific objectives were to determine the rates of surgery in children and adults and determine if the area’s surgical facilities and surgical and anaesthesia workforce comply with published WHO standards for surgery.5,6 England is a high-income country with a National Health Service that provides most of the health care for the population and where accurate data regarding surgical activity and workforce are collected. Comparisons were made between Uganda and England to gauge the magnitude of the differences in surgical activity and workforce between a high-income and a low-income country.


Between 6 October and 8 November 2008, we conducted a cross-sectional survey of the surgical and anaesthesia workforce and of the infrastructure and availability of drugs and equipment for surgery in all hospitals in south-western Uganda that were designated as centres for major surgery. We defined major surgery as any intervention occurring in a hospital operating theatre involving the incision, excision, manipulation or suturing of tissue and requiring regional or general anaesthesia or sedation.1 We defined minor surgery as any procedure that did not require regional or general anaesthesia or sedation (e.g. dressing wounds, applying a cast or suturing lacerations under local anaesthesia). A retrospective review of the surgical workload was performed to calculate the surgical rates for children and adults during 2007–2008, and the rates of in-patient paediatric surgery were compared to corresponding rates in England during the same time period.14


We estimated the total population of the south-western region of Uganda in 2007 by applying the WHO population growth rate of 3.2% per year after 2002 to population data for the 14 study districts from the 2002 Uganda Population and Housing Census.12,15 Using data from the WHO Statistical Information Service, we calculated the number of children aged ≤ 14 years12 to allow comparison with international data sets and previous observational studies in children.2,12,14

Survey sites

We surveyed all hospitals that had been designated as centres for major surgery in 14 districts of the Western and Central administrative regions of south-western Uganda (Kisoro, Kabale, Kanungu, Rukungiri, Ntungamo, Isingiro, Mbarara, Bushenyi, Kasese, Ibanda, Kiruhura, Kamwenge, Rakai and Masaka). We obtained the names of the hospitals from the 2001 Uganda Ministry of Health Inventory of Health Facilities14 and from local residents.

Survey procedures

During the study period, two trained investigators (ADO, FM) visited the hospitals to interview staff and review the theatre logbooks for the period from 1 August 2007 to 31 July 2008. A data collection form was used to obtain a description of the hospital, the number of in-patient beds, the number of operating theatres in use, the types of operations performed, the number, speciality and training of surgeons on staff, and the number and training of anaesthesia providers on staff. A structured interview was devised to obtain information on facilities for anaesthesia from anaesthesia providers. The investigators were trained over a period of one week and pilot interviews were conducted at Mbarara University Hospital.

Survey analysis

We used simple descriptive statistics to summarize the data from hospitals where major surgery was performed. Any missing data were noted and whenever surgical activity data were missing, the weekly surgical rate was calculated and extrapolated to obtain the annual surgical rate for that facility. Facilities in hospitals performing major surgery were compared with recommended standards for WHO level-2 hospitals and with WHO guidelines on the infrastructure needed to support safe surgery.5,6

We analysed the major surgical workload in detail, compared the total surgical rate with global rates for surgery in different income settings,1 and, whenever possible, described surgical services in light of WHO standardised metrics.7 Surgical operations in children aged ≤ 14 years were categorized according to surgical diagnosis and their rates were compared with the surgical rates for children in England during the same time period using codes for finished consultant episodes.2,14,16 The surgical and anaesthesia workforce was compared to that in England using the National Health Service Census.17

The research and ethics committees of the University of Mbarara and the Mbarara University Hospital approved the survey.


Population and hospital characteristics

The population of the region was estimated at 6 305 000 and the population aged ≤ 14 years at 3 089 000 (49% of the total).12

All 72 hospitals in the region, 29 of which were performing major surgery, were visited (Table 1). This included 9 district hospitals, 3 referral hospitals, 1 private hospital and 12 hospitals belonging to missions or to nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). There were 47 Health Centres IV (HCIV), the lowest level of rural health centre designated to perform major surgery. Only 4 HCIV were performing major surgery at WHO level 2. Of the remaining 43 HCIV, 11 were performing no surgery at all and the others were performing only minor procedures not requiring anaesthesia due to inadequate staffing (anaesthetists or surgeons) or operating theatre equipment.

Operating room facilities

Detailed information was obtained from 28 of the 29 hospitals (97%) that performed major surgery (Table 2). We could not obtain this information from one hospital because the anaesthesia provider was not on site. None of the hospitals consistently met the standards for a WHO level 2 hospital in the previous three months, and only seven hospitals met this standard “sometimes.” Mbarara University Hospital sometimes had the facilities recommended for a level 3 hospital. There were shortages of personnel, drugs, equipment and general facilities for surgery in all hospitals. Electricity and running water were not always available in 9 and 8 hospitals, respectively. Blood was not always available for transfusion in 18 hospitals.

Drawover anaesthesia (halothane or ether) was used in 26 hospitals, and oxygen was supplied in them by an electric oxygen concentrator. All hospitals indicated having a supply of oxygen in operating theatres at all times, although 9 hospitals did not have a backup generator for power failures, which are common in Uganda. Ketamine, the induction agent in most common use, was always available in 27 of the 28 hospitals. Anaesthesia providers indicated that the most important factors for improving anaesthesia delivery were modern anaesthesia equipment and monitoring. A pulse oximeter was available in 13 of the 28 hospitals, that is, 26 of 57 operating theatres; thus, the oximeter “gap” was 54%. Only two hospitals had a pulse oximeter and oxygen available in the theatre recovery area.


There were 43 consultant specialist surgeons in the region (0.7 accredited surgeons per 100 000 population); specialities included general surgery, obstetrics, orthopaedic surgery, ophthalmology, dental surgery, neurosurgery, ear, nose and throat surgery and urology. According to British National Health Service census data, England had 6260 consultant surgeons and 1506 consultant obstetricians and gynaecologists in 2007 (15.2 per 100 000 population).16,17 In Uganda, the number of trained surgeons was 4.6% of what it was in England. Twenty-one surgeons worked in urban centres, either in the regional referral hospitals or in the private hospital (Table 1). There were no specialized paediatric surgeons in the region and only 62 general physicians (medical officers, 1.0 per 100 000 population) who performed surgery, mainly in the HCIVs and in district and mission hospitals. Of these medical officers, 32 were within 5 years of qualification and lacked specialist surgical training.

The region had 85 anaesthesia providers, only 9 of whom were physicians (7 consultants who had completed specialized training in anaesthesiology and 2 trainees). This amounted to 0.14 physician anaesthetists per 100 000 population, compared with 4791 consultant anaesthetists in England (9.3 per 100 000 population).16,17 Thus, the number of consultant anaesthetists in Uganda was 1.4% the number in England. The remaining anaesthesia providers were 33 non-physician anaesthetic officers with 2 years of training, 26 anaesthetic assistants with 1 year of training, and 17 providers with no formal training (“trained on the job”). Thus, trained non-physician anaesthesia providers numbered 0.9 per 100 000 population, and accredited anaesthetists (physician and non-physician) numbered 1.1 per 100 000 population. In two hospitals anaesthesia was administered by the surgeon or by midwives or nurses.

Access to surgery

We analysed surgical logbooks in all hospitals, although Kabale Regional Referral Hospital had only 25 weeks of consecutive logbook data. Thus, for this hospital the annual surgical workload was extrapolated from the weekly rate. The reliability of the logbook data was confirmed by two members of the project team who worked in the region and by examining the dates and continuity of the entries. A total of 41 113 major operations were performed between 1 August 2007 and 31 July 2008 (equivalent to 652 per 100 000 population per year)(Table 3). Of all operations, 93% were performed in 18 hospitals (5 district hospitals, 3 regional referral hospitals and 10 mission/NGO hospitals); 45.4% of them were performed in government hospitals, 54.6% in mission/NGO hospitals and 0.5% in the private hospital. For comparison, Table 3 shows the mean estimated surgical rate in countries with poor, low, middle and high expenditure on health care.1 Use of the operating room and staffing levels in different hospitals are shown in Table 4.

As shown in Table 3, 5571 operations were performed in children aged ≤ 14 years; the annual overall surgical rate for children was 180 per 100 000 population aged ≤ 14 years. During the same time period, the annual surgical rate for children aged ≤ 14 years in England was 5892 per 100 000. Thus, the paediatric surgical rate in Uganda was 3.0% of the rate in England.16,17

In Uganda (Table 5), the three most common diagnostic surgical categories in children were trauma and burns (30.2%), general or urologic paediatric surgery (25%), or infection (drainage of abscess/osteomyelitis) (14.9%). The surgical rate for cleft lip and palate repair was 21% of the rate in England. Cleft surgery was undertaken by plastic surgery teams from Kampala, Mbarara, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and Germany who operated in Mbarara or in rural hospitals. These surgeons received external funding from Smile Train and Interplast and performed 112 of the 140 (80%) operations for cleft lip and palate repair.


In-theatre outcomes were recorded for 5188 operations. Four children, all of whom had been recorded in the theatre logbooks as being in poor condition before surgery, died in theatre (in theatre mortality: 7.7 deaths per 10 000 cases). One was a 2-year-old with a delayed diagnosis of Hirschsprung’s disease; two required burr holes after a head injury, and one was a 3-year-old who had inhaled a foreign body. Information about postoperative mortality was not available.


We have described a comprehensive regional survey of health-care facilities providing major surgery for children in a low-income country. None of the hospitals in the region reliably achieved WHO standards for essential and emergency surgery. Deficiencies related to workforce, drugs, equipment and infrastructural factors such as electricity supply, running water and blood for transfusion. Disposable equipment was routinely reused or not available. We found that of a total of 29 hospitals that undertook major surgery, 18 performed 93% of all operations in the region. Furthermore, the nongovernment sector covered a large portion of the total surgical workload. Of a total of 47 rural health centres, only 4 could perform major surgery. Paediatric surgery was almost entirely of an emergency nature, mainly for burns and trauma. Externally funded surgeons performed an important fraction of all elective plastic and reconstructive surgical procedures.

One strength of our study is that it included all health-care facilities in the region where major surgery was performed. The Ugandan Ministry of Health requires that all surgical activity be recorded in the operating theatre logbook, and the project team is confident that the data was accurately recorded. One weakness, on the other hand, was that the data were collected retrospectively and the surgical activity for one hospital was extrapolated from 25 weeks of records covering the period from 1 August 2007 to 22 January 2008. We recommend that a more robust definition of major and minor surgery be developed for future surveys. In-theatre mortality was recorded in the theatre logbook for 97% of paediatric operations. This in-theatre mortality underestimates overall perioperative mortality because most deaths after surgery tend to occur in the ward, particularly in neonates. In-hospital deaths on the day of surgery and within 30 days of surgery should be routinely monitored.7

Nordberg et al. estimated that in sub-Saharan Africa, the basic public health requirement for major surgery is 1000 operations per 100 000 population annually.18 The overall surgical rate found in this study approached this figure and was higher than previously estimated in Uganda, probably because other authors did not take the contribution of NGOs into consideration.1,19 The Ugandan Government has recently upgraded HCIV facilities to improve access to essential surgery for the rural population.20,21 In our study, most HCIV hospitals were performing little or no surgery due to lack of workforce or facilities. In contrast, mission/NGO hospitals in rural areas appeared to be better equipped and supplied (possibly due to their external funding and fee structure). They were the more efficient providers of surgical care in the region, performing 55% of all operations while using only 44% of the total number of hospital beds. Where resources are so critically limited, it may be advisable to improve transportation so that surgery can be concentrated in a limited number of government- or NGO-operated facilities.

This study showed that the rate of in-patient surgical procedures in children in Uganda was very low and a mere 3% of the rate seen in England. Although there are obvious socioeconomic differences between the two countries, the comparison highlights the vast underprovision of elective paediatric surgery in Uganda. Furthermore, the study confirmed the findings of previous studies performed in single institutions, namely that delayed presentation for surgery was common and that preventable conditions, such as burns and trauma or the complications of infectious processes, accounted for much of the surgery in children.2,22 Many basic paediatric operations (both elective and emergency in nature) were performed by medical officers, many of whom lacked specialist surgical training. The situation poses a challenge for countries where a rural medical officer is expected to cover medical, surgical and obstetric care. A previous report from Nigeria recorded a single paediatric surgeon for a population of approximately 2 million (by comparison, Europe has one paediatric surgeon per 50 000 population).23,24

No specialist paediatric surgeons were identified in the south-western region of Uganda. Higher surgical rates were found where visiting surgeons funded by external organisations, such as Smile Train or Interplast, performed specialist surgery.25,26 These teams bring specialist skills to rural populations, and they are also able to purchase additional drugs, equipment and monitoring to defined standards so that complex procedures can be undertaken safely.26

Task-shifting is often seen as a potential solution to the medical workforce crisis.27,28 Our finding that 17 anaesthesia providers were “trained on the job” indicates too much reliance on task-shifting to untrained personnel. Although the development of the non-medical workforce has proved essential in increasing the delivery of care, quality standards have not been maintained in rural areas.46

In-theatre mortality in children in south-western Uganda (7.7 deaths per 10 000 operations) was lower than anticipated and less than the in-theatre mortality reported for specialist children’s facilities in middle- and high-income countries (9.8, 3.46 and 0.4 deaths per 10 000 operations in institutions in Pakistan, Brazil and France, respectively).2931 This may be partly explained by differences in case mix, since the cases in Uganda were less complex. Very high perioperative mortality rates have been reported for adults and children in hospitals in low-income countries, where many avoidable deaths have been associated with failures in administrative procedures, anaesthesia and surgical care.3237 These studies have included deaths on the wards up to 6 days postoperatively and have shown perioperative mortality rates of 26 to 257 deaths per 10 000 operations, as well as anaesthesia complications frequently related to failures in airway management (including tracheal intubation), respiratory monitoring and in reversing paralysis after anaesthesia.3337 Children who undergo surgery in Uganda are frequently given ketamine, an effective and safe anaesthetic and analgesic agent, and since ketamine generally preserves airway patency, it is often used without tracheal intubation or paralysis. Because of these attributes, non-anaesthetists in emergency departments in advanced countries are using ketamine in increasing numbers.38 It is possible that ketamine-based anaesthesia without tracheal intubation provides relatively safe conditions for simple surgery in children in Uganda and similar settings.

Meeting the needs for safe surgical care in a low-income country such as Uganda, where resources are few, is a complex matter. It calls for investing in hospital facilities, supplies of drugs and disposable items. The low numbers of medical graduates, limited opportunities for postgraduate training and medical migration limit the available workforce.3941 Expansion of in-country postgraduate training opportunities with external support and funding may eventually lead to self-sufficiency.21,42,43 Local clinicians can benefit from the valuable training opportunity offered by partnering with visiting specialists.21,25,44 Task shifting has been suggested as a solution to workforce shortages in some areas, but support and supervision are needed to maintain the standards of care.27,28 Although many anaesthesia providers in our study expressed the wish to have modern anaesthesia machines, this may not be feasible at present due to infrastructural limitations (reliance on electricity, pressurised oxygen supply and sophisticated maintenance). No ISO standard exists at present for an anaesthesia machine suited to low-income countries,45 and we urge manufacturers to consider designing anaesthesia delivery systems specifically for these regions.

Surgery is an essential component of public health, and surgical facilities must meet certain basic standards for safe practice. According to our survey, in Uganda large volumes of surgery are handled by a small number of hospitals and an important fraction of all operations is performed in mission/NGO hospitals and by visiting surgical teams. To address these problems and improve outcomes, steps must be taken to encourage surgical training in the country, retain the workforce and improve access to surgery and anaesthesia services. Maximizing the use of resources by strengthening services in a limited number of centres, whether run by the government or by missions or NGOs, would seem to be a sensible approach.


This study was funded by a grant from the Association of Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland and the Association of Paediatric Anaesthetists of Great Britain and Ireland. The funding sources had no role in the design, conduct or reporting of the study.

Competing interests:

IHW is a member of the WHO/WFSA Global Pulse Oximetry Project management group.