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Mobile health teams bring medical care to pastoralists in remote regions of Ethiopia

By Indrias Getachew

MAYOMULUKO, Ethiopia, 26 March 2012 – As a new day breaks in Mayomuluko, in Fik Zone of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, health professionals loads their vehicle with supplies for the nomadic pastoralists who live in this remote district, where infrastructure and access to basic services are scarce.

VIDEO: 9 February 2012 - UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on a programme that is bringing life-saving healthcare to nomadic pastoralists in Ethiopia.  Watch in RealPlayer


Their supplies include medicines, vaccines, weighing scales and measuring tapes, as well as a box of ready-to-use therapeutic foods – supplied by UNICEF with the support of the European Commission Humanitarian Aid Department (ECHO). The scales, tapes and food will be used to treat severely malnourished children at their mobile outpatient therapeutic feeding programme (OTP).

Treating deadly malnutrition

After a bumpy ride through the semi-desert terrain, the team arrives at Dhera-rekay, one of six sites for their mobile health and nutrition team. Large crowds assemble under the shade of acacia trees as the team sets up stations for treating adults and children and administering vaccinations.

Shamis Ali Hared is among the throng of patients. She has brought her 8-month-old son, Hassan Hussein. “In this area we have a lot of problems because of the drought,” she said. “My child and I were very thirsty and sick, that is why we came here today… When you see your child sick you become worried. He was at the point of life or death.”

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2012/Getachew
The Mayomuluko mobile health and nutrition team load their vehicle with supplies, before heading to an outreach sites in the remote Somali Region of Ethiopia.

Hassan Mohammed, a clinical nurse, is responsible for the mobile team’s therapeutic feeding services. He uses a measuring tape to check baby Hassan’s mid-upper-arm circumference (MUAC), an indicator of the child’s nutritional status, to determine his progress from the previous week. Children under age 5 with MUAC measurements under 11.5 cm are considered to have severe acute malnutrition, a condition that can be deadly without treatment.

“Hassan was very weak. His MUAC measurement was 9.5 cm on admission,” said Mr. Mohammed. But Hassan is recovering. “After three weeks in OTP, his MUAC measurement is 10.5 cm.”

“My child became healthy and is now full of joy,” said Ms. Ali Hared. She was herself treated for anaemia and headaches. “I received iron tablets, and I have stopped feeling faint. I got painkillers and I am now fine and strong and can work well. They treated me very well.”

“We can say without a doubt that without the presence of the mobile health and nutrition team, many children would have faced many health problems and would have died,” said Mr. Mohammed. “The people who live around here are pastoralists – they move around, and they don’t have much support around here, there are no NGOs and no others to help them out, there is actually nothing working around here that can provide them the support that they need.”

© UNICEF Ethiopia/2012/Getachew
Shamis Ali Hared holds her 8-month-old baby, Hassan, who is being treated for malnutrition in the Somali Region of Ethiopia.

Help for the hardest-to-reach

The Somali pastoralists make their living raising cattle, camels and goats. In the arid and drought-prone region, they are forced to move from place to place in search of pasture and watering holes for their animals.

“The Somali Region population is estimated to be above 5 million, and more than 80 per cent of the inhabitants are pastoralists,” said Abdulahi Ali Haj, a UNICEF health worker. “Because the community is mobile, unless you have mobile health strategies it is difficult to address their needs.”

The mobile teams are part of UNICEF’s equity approach, a strategy to reach out to the most vulnerable, hardest-to-reach groups. “Thanks to these 24 mobile health and nutrition teams in Somali and four in Afar, hundreds of thousands of women and children have access to basic health and nutrition services,” said Ted Chaiban, UNICEF Representative in Ethiopia. “As Ethiopia comes closer to reaching the health Millennium Development Goals, it becomes increasingly important to reach out to the harder-to-reach, harder-to-access populations… We really appreciate the support of ECHO in making this strategy possible.”

Ms. Ali Hared attests to the mobile team’s importance. “I can assure you that if there was no mobile health team here, we would not be around,” she said. “If these mobile health teams were not here with their cars and with their medicine, we would not have survived.”



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