In Pakistan's makeshift camps, mobile health clinics save lives
Dr. Nasreen Khaskheli takes the blood pressure of a patient during a mobile health clinic consultation while her young son looks on.
By Tania McBride
SUKKUR, Pakistan, 8 September 2010 – Seemingly oblivious to the constant stream of trucks, gasoline fumes and dust being kicked up by the traffic roaring past this tiny makeshift camp on the outskirts of Sukkar, Dr. Nasreen Khaskheli listened intently to her patients’ descriptions of their ailments. She nodded empathically and, after a thorough consultation, dispensed the required medications.
This mobile team of three health workers – supported by UNICEF – visits up to four makeshift camps each day and has been known to treat over 300 patients daily, all presenting a variety of ailments.
"Many of the health problems I am seeing today are dehydration, acute watery diarrhoea, respiratory infections and skin diseases, particularly scabies amongst the children, "said Dr. Khaskheli. She noted that particularly worrisome are the increasing numbers of people, including children, suffering from diarrhoea.
“The quality of water, hygiene and sanitation are closely linked with the disease status of the community,” said Dr. Khaskheli. “If these cases of diarrhoea are not dealt with swiftly and properly, they could result in further deterioration of children’s health and in some cases, death.”
As flood waters continue to sit stagnant, she added, another concern in the coming weeks and months will be malaria.
Dr. Khaskheli’s mobile health clinic has been at the makeshift camp on the noisy highway since early this morning. The heat is relentless and flies swarm about the children, landing on their infected sores and bites.
Women, children and elderly people from 11 families (some 30 people) who have recently arrived here by foot patiently awaited their turn. The number of children with skin infections is visible even to the medically untrained. Heat rashes cover their faces and chests and the scabs from scratching scabies sores leave a telltale trail of marks over their tiny arms.
Nonetheless, today is a lucky day for Dr. Khaskheli and the team: a shade cloth allows them to keep their mobile clinic out of the intensity of the sun.
Illness and loss
Many of the families in this small camp have lost everything to the devastating floods, including their homes, their crops and their animals – their lives as they knew them. The psychological impact upon these families will be long-lasting, Dr. Khaskheli cautions.
Young Abdul (not his real name) sat miserably, waiting his turn for treatment. The sores covering his face and arms, when combined with the heat, caused him to scratch until he bled. His mother said that she was thankful for the doctor’s arrival, and that now he would finally be able to get proper treatment and medication.
Mobile health clinics like the one Dr. Khaskheli works with are currently roving around the more than 200 makeshift camps on the outskirts of Sukkur. The teams are vital for the treatment and education of children and families, who are now being hit by a second wave of disaster – the onslaught of diseases due to the heat, unsanitary conditions and lack of safe water.
Urgent scale-up needed
"We can give quick and effective treatment using these mobile health clinics to thousands of patients suffering from different ailments like acute watery diarrhoea, acute respiratory infections, malaria, eye and skin diseases,” said UNICEF Health Officer Dr. Muhummad Mazhar Alam, who is based in Sukkur.
But the mobile clinics are simply not enough, and do not present a sustainable solution. “It is essential to establish more static clinics within large camps, backed by a strong referral system so that patients can be referred from the camps to the health facility,” said Dr. Alam.
He added that he is particularly concerned about a lack of maternal health services in Pakistan’s camps.
“You will see a lot of pregnant and lactating women and children in camps, and I’ve heard of women giving birth in these environments without any support from skilled birth attendant,” he said. “It is essential that we scale up our services so that we can avoid another crisis – a crisis of health for these children and women."