Making a difference in Libya’s Public Health Sector
Two years ago, Dr. Mawaheb Shelli joined UNICEF’s Libya Country Office as a Health and Nutrition Officer. She started working in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic – diving straight into complex and challenging projects. UNICEF led on several pillars of the Government’s COVID-19 response plan in Libya, including infection prevention, control and immunization, risk communications, and social and behavioral change. As a medical doctor with experience working on Libya’s National Tuberculosis Programme, challenging work was not new to her.
Dr. Mawaheb supported UNICEF’s efforts to ensure effective vaccine management – working on the vaccine cold chain, helping to procure needed equipment, setting up trainings for vaccinators, and managing data analysis and inventory. Despite the obstacles the team came up against, Dr. Mawaheb stayed positive, knowing they were making a difference for the Libyan people during a chaotic and scary time. She described some of the challenges the team dealt with, particularly trying to get vaccines safely into the country with freight forwarding and through a complicated customs clearance process.
While Dr. Mawaheb has dedicated her life to medicine, she found while working for UNICEF that her true passion is nutrition. She helped lead efforts to gather data on children under five who are malnourished and to identify which areas in Libya are most affected by nutritional deficiency. This information helped UNICEF develop an evidence-based programme focusing on health and nutrition for children’s first 1,000 days. Research shows that the first two years of a child’s life are critical to brain development, building an adequate immune system, and ultimately setting up a child with a foundation for lifelong health.
Dr. Mawaheb helped design and set up innovative trainings to integrate young child nutritional practices into healthcare facilities. She explained that
“these are the first trainings of their kind in Libya, and while it started as a small pilot project we now have 139 trained professionals in communities all over Libya, including in Kufra, Sirte, and Sabha.”
One aspect of this programme focuses on standardizing newborn and maternal health, including providing new mothers with information on breastfeeding and complementary feedings as well as psychosocial support and counseling for mothers and fathers. Understanding the importance of a network of support, she also helped the teams to create WhatsApp and Viber groups for new moms enabling them direct contact with local healthcare professionals.
Another program Dr. Mawaheb works on is providing life saving measures to children in detention centres. Libya is the most popular starting point for illegal migration to Europe, and detention centres are overwhelmed with migrants living in unsanitary conditions. Ms. Cristina Brugiolo, acting UNICEF Special Representative to Libya said, “Children are held under devastating and inhumane conditions in these detention centres.” Partnering with the Ministry of Health, UNICEF has provided screenings for children to combat malnutrition and deliver immunizations. Mobile government teams then make the visits to the detention centres to deliver vitamins, RTF supplements, and vaccinations.
During her two years as a Health and Nutrition Officer, Dr. Mawaheb has also supported UNICEF’s work with primary health care facilities in rural areas of Libya. With government resources stretched thin because of efforts to combat COVID-19, primary care centres have received limited support. Dr. Mawaheb explained, “we have provided trainings and equipment to 67 healthcare facilities enabling them to continue providing care to their communities. One of the facility managers from Dirj expressed his appreciation for the support to their Centre saying that being based in such a rural area they often feel forgotten.”
While the job has its challenging moments, Dr. Mawaheb stays positive because she sees the real difference she is making in people’s lives. She also has her family to lean on, she said, “I love spending time with them, and I have two beautiful daughters who mean the world to me.”
Dr. Mawaheb looks forward to continuing her work with UNICEF as they start new and innovative programming including developing a national ambulance centre and providing solar powered medical equipment to facilities greatly in need.