By Rebecca Beauregard
GASHAMO, SOMALI, 15 February 2017 – Under the shade of a tree and settled on plastic mats, the mobile health and nutrition team (MHNT) is in full operation. An array of bright coloured fabric represents the crowd of mothers and children gathered around them, all in varying stages of screening, vaccinations, treatment or referral. In the rural Somali region, Gashamo woreda (district), 63 km off the paved road, the MHNT has been operating as a static clinic for the past two months as part of the response to the Horn of Africa drought caused by the negative Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD).
Facing food and grazing shortages and in need of water, drought-affected pastoralist families and their livestock began traveling long distances in search of water. As one of the most vulnerable communities across the country, unique interventions are required to provide them a safety net in times of emergency.
The Government of Ethiopia (GoE) has provided a swift response by setting up five temporary sites in Gashamo woreda, which offer health and nutrition services as well as food and water. This arrangement is crucial and specific to pastoralist communities, where families are scattered across hundreds of kilometres of harsh semi-arid desert.
28-year-old Mohammed, a senior clinical nurse by training, works alongside two nurses who treat and manage cases, in addition to two health extension workers (HEWs) who screen patients and conduct community health education. Mohammed and his team were assigned to this hotspot priority one site by the Somali Regional Health Bureau (RHB), following a recent updating of hotspot woredas, which are most affected by malnutrition according to the latest meher seasonal assessment.
“My family is 200 km away and I am not sure when I will visit them. Probably when the drought is over,” says Mohammed. “But our work here is very important, there are thousands of people who otherwise would not have access to any health services. Especially during a severe drought, our services save lives.” He explains further that while the Ethiopian health system is highly developed, utilizing catchment areas for a tiered health facility structure is not feasible in pastoralist communities.
“Pastoralists are always on the move in order to provide grazing and water for their livestock, so expanding health facilities in these remote areas does not add value. Right now, there are over two thousand families in this location, so why not set up a permanent health post to serve them? Because perhaps in one or three months, there will be 20 families here, or none. Across the region, there are remote areas where people come and go, so the normal health system does not serve its purpose [in this context].”
This is the reason MHNTs were created and why they have helped improve the health and nutrition situation of pastoralist families for the past decade. From regular risk assessments and categorization of vulnerable woredas by the Ministry of Health and partners, including UNICEF, MHNTs are deployed for a minimum of three months, depending on the emergency situation and needs. With the onset of a sudden disease outbreaks or other emergencies, the MHNT will temporary relocate to the affected area to provide initial rapid response and then return to their assigned woreda.
The MHNTs work six days per week, traveling from location to location and setting up mobile clinics along the way. They make contacts with social mobilisers, volunteers from the community, to ensure everyone knows the day and place where the MHNT will be. The social mobilisers know their community well, even those families that are spread out across a vast terrain, and they guarantee everyone receives the information. Every time, a crowd of mostly women and children are gathered, anticipating the needed treatment and care.
The MHNTs conduct screening for malnutrition, provide routine immunizations and basic healthcare treatment, ante-natal care and emergency delivery services, common illness management, health education and promotion, as well as refer patients to higher levels of care as and distributing household water purification supplies as necessary. When the latter happens, they often utilize their vehicles to bring patients to the nearest health facility, as it would be near impossible for timely care otherwise.
UNICEF supports the GoE’s MHNT programme with the generous effort from donors, through vehicle provision, transportation allowances, emergency supplies and technical guidance. There are 49 MHNTs currently operating in Somali and Afar regions, moving around their respective regions according to the identified need.
Our visit is cut short as the team has just identified two children who are not responding to malnutrition treatment – as per the protocol, severe acute malnutrition (SAM) cases should return to the MHNT on a weekly basis to record progress or be referred to higher levels of care. These cases have been escalated to SAM with medical complications and the mothers are encouraged to gather their belongings and take the MHNT car to the nearest stabilisation centre about 30 km away. “Working in a static clinic may be nice,” says Mohammed, who has been working on the MHNT for nearly seven years, “and over time, as Somali region becomes more developed, the health system may be able to cover all areas. But until then, I know there is a great need and I am proud to be working on this team.”