Community health volunteers are saving lives in Darfur’s camps

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© UNICEF Sudan/2005/Townsend
A community health volunteer at work in Darfur.

By Dorn Townsend

ABOU SHOUK CAMP, North Darfur, Sudan, 14 September 2005 – Mohamed Hadi Ali has given speeches in front of water pumps, pretended to be a mosquito in impromptu skits, and has held earnest conversations with people in their homes – all to drive home the connection between hygiene and health.

Mohamed works as a community health volunteer in the Abu Shouk camp for Darfur residents who have been forced to flee their homes.  He says that at first the residents of Abu Shouk didn’t take his performances and educational visits seriously.

But earlier this year, a number of children living on Mohamed’s street suddenly fell ill with high fevers and weight loss. Some died. Subsequently more parents began to pay attention to the warnings and lessons which Mohamed is trying to impart.

“All of my neighbours are from small farming villages,” he said. “None have experience living surrounded by so many thousands of people.

“With so many people squeezed into a small area, things like washing hands and cleaning up garbage suddenly become very important.”

Mortality declining

UNICEF has trained and deployed nearly 1,000 community health volunteers like Mohamed in the Darfur region. In addition the organization is providing support for nearly 200 primary health care facilities.

The volunteers are on the frontlines in the battle against disease, using flash cards, street theatre, and house visits to educate people about the potentially deadly threat posed by poor hygiene. They wear identification cards and don special shirts to help community residents know who they are.

UNICEF Health Programme Officer Sawsan Rawas says the volunteers are taught through active training. “This means the volunteers relate their successes and difficulties with each other and discuss them. Especially after the emergency in the camps from the recent flooding, it was valuable to come together and compare responses.”

It’s hard to quantify their exact contribution, but observers say that the contributions made by the community health volunteers like Mohamed are starting to have a positive effect. Furthermore, figures compiled this summer by the World Health Organization indicate that, since 2004, the mortality rate throughout Darfur has gone down significantly, especially for children. 

Empowering to help

In collaboration with non-governmental organizational partners, UNICEF holds weeklong seminars for volunteers in every camp in Darfur, as well as in towns and cities in the region.

Until now the focus of instruction has been on hygiene and sanitation. The next round of training will focus on preventing AIDS, breastfeeding, and eradicating cholera.

“At first people wanted to be community health promoters because they were displaced and traumatized,” said Dr. Mohamed Yousif, local director of the NGO Kuwaiti Patients Helping Fund. “They wanted a job so they could feed their families.

“But every few months the volunteers come back for more training. When they do, they feel empowered because they’re doing something vital to help their community.”


 

 

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