When getting quicker test results can save your life in Belize

With a functioning lab, communities at risk of being cut off from the rest of the country during heavy rains are now able to stand on their own feet.

By Martina Tomassini
UNICEF Belize: a lab technician shows a UNICEF staff how to operate testing equipment in a lab.
UNICEF Belize/2020
09 September 2020

SAN NARCISO, Belize, 9 September 2020 ─ As health systems stretch under the pressure of COVID-19, pregnant mothers and children in need of essential health services are at risk of not receiving them. Even more so, if they live in remote and deprived areas, like Chunox and San Narciso in the north of Belize.

While meeting the needs posed by the current pandemic is critical and urgent, carrying forward with basic health activities is also crucial. Be they nutrition programmes, immunization campaigns, or routine healthcare services with a functioning lab.

A lab that can collect blood samples and process them on site for quicker diagnosis and treatment can help improve, and save, lives. This is what the village of San Narciso is now proud to offer to its community.

Functional from August 2020, the lab is part of San Narciso Polyclinic, which provides health services to more than 8,000 people in six villages. In the same district, the lab in Chunox village will also be able to serve an additional six villages with basic healthcare in the near future. 

The time for the patient to receive treatment is cut shorter because now the patient can access the lab and get results quicker.

Rosalia Perez, Admin Assistant.

To make this possible, in 2019 UNICEF and the Ministry of Health built on their ongoing collaboration to expand quality health services in underserved areas in northern Belize – with support from the Probitas Foundation.

As a result, vulnerable people can now get treatment faster – which translates into better healthcare and quality of life. Building and equipping the lab, as well as training a lab technician in equipment use and safety practices, turned this into reality.

UNICEF talks with staff from San Narciso Polyclinic to understand how the lab is making a difference in the lives of local families. We discuss the challenges and opportunities of providing quality healthcare in a hard-to-reach rural area with Ian Jamir Dominguez, Lab Technician, Dr Jorge Sajia, Deputy Regional Health Manager, Ermis Bineda, Nurse, and Rosalia Perez, Administrative Assistant.*

How many people does San Narciso Polyclinic serve approximately?
On average we receive 50 patients a day. This number goes up when women come for maternal and newborn care. Since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, numbers have gone down.

What are the most common health services at San Narciso Polyclinic?
General health consultations, maternal and child health services, and family planning.

What are the services you can now offer at San Narciso Polyclinic that you couldn’t offer without a lab?
A quicker diagnosis. For example, if someone comes in with symptoms like dizziness we can collect and run a blood sample right away. We don’t need take the sample to Corozal Community Hospital [the closest hospital with a functioning lab in the District] and wait to get results from them. This can now be done in house and patients can wait here while the results are being processed. The time frame for each patient to get a complete service is much quicker.

What are the most common health problems for people who come to San Narciso Polyclinic?
Acute, chronic and maternal and child health issues are the most common health issues. [Poverty is high in the area and people eat what they can afford. Malnutrition is evident in some younger children and many adults suffer from high cholesterol, hypertension and other non-communicable diseases].

What do you think is the added value of a functioning lab at San Narciso Polyclinic?
Before the lab was set up, patients were referred to Corozal Community Hospital. The hospital is about 20 miles away from the Polyclinic and most people get there by bus or taxi. [One of the villages in the catchment area is the distant San Victor which borders Mexico; to reach the hospital from there takes several hours on dusty roads, which turn into muddy canyons during the rainy season].

Patients need to show up at the hospital between 7 am and 9 am to have their sample taken. If they arrive late, they need to be rescheduled and go back another day.

Now, with the functioning lab at San Narciso, the medical officer on duty can assess the situation, without referrals nor delays. People do not need to travel far on an empty stomach. Nor to spend money to get there. Many people who live in the surrounding communities are vulnerable and with limited means [the communities served by San Narciso and Chunox Polyclinics have the lowest resources within the District]. The money invested in the lab is put to good use.

UNICEF Belize: a UNICEF staff listens to a doctor as he explains how the San Narciso lab works.
UNICEF Belize/2020
UNICEF Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, Paulette Wade (left), listens to Dr Jorge Sajia, Deputy Regional Health Manager (right), as he explains how the San Narciso lab works.

Improving maternal and child health programmes through diagnosis

The successful collaboration between the Probitas Foundation and UNICEF in Belize goes back to 2017. This is when work started to build and equip two labs in Toledo and one in Stann Creek Districts in the south of the country, so that people could get better access to diagnostics and treatment.

Expanding this collaboration to remote areas in the north of the country not only builds on past successes but also fits into the Foundation’s Global Laboratory Initiative (GLI).

With the aim of improving the quality of life of underserved populations through lab testing, this initiative is well aligned with Belize’s health strategy of extending healthcare services to remote areas of the country. And it contributes to improving maternal and child health programmes through appropriate and quick diagnosis.

“Readily accessible laboratory service to the general population, even when in remote areas, contributes to our national health strategy in Belize focused on equal health for all,” said Juvencio Chan, Director of Belize’s Central Medical Laboratory.  

In addition to supporting routine healthcare services, the lab will also contribute to the national response to COVID-19: “Coordination on packaging and shipment of samples to referral laboratories is a plus with the addition of new laboratories,” he added.

UNICEF Belize: a UNICEF staff takes notes in San Narciso lab.
UNICEF Belize/2020
UNICEF Monitoring and Evaluation Specialist, Paulette Wade (left), takes notes to review the functionalities of the lab in San Narciso as Lab Technician Ian Jamir Dominguez (right) answers her questions.

San Narciso and Chunox villages are located in Corozal District, the second most impoverished area of Belize following Toledo District. While rich in Hispanic and Mayan culture, the District is poor in basic services, standard of living and accessibility.

UNICEF has been working with the Ministry of Health to provide quality healthcare for mothers, children and young people across Belize. This has been done by, for example, training health staff, providing essential health equipment, supporting adolescent health with a dedicated strategy, promoting healthy nutrition and breastfeeding, and carrying out research on mental health.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.