The deployment of the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort in recent months to American cities overwhelmed by COVID-19 has made people increasingly aware of the important role hospital ships can play in providing critical medical care in times of crisis. What remains much less known is the ongoing global surgery crisis that sees 5 billion people without access to safe, timely, and affordable surgery – a crisis not on pause during the pandemic.
The poorest of this group – often referred to as the ‘bottom billion’ – live in African nations who now find themselves battling a highly contagious respiratory virus on top of numerous pre-existing healthcare challenges – and all this within notably fragile systems.
Mercy Ships has served such nations in Sub-Saharan Africa for 30 years by bringing state-of-the-art hospital ships run by skilled volunteers to provide direct surgical services to those in desperate need, and strengthen healthcare systems through medical capacity building programs.
Like the USNS Mercy and USNS Comfort, the Africa Mercy is a repurposed hospital ship, yet what makes it unique amongst all others is its five world-class operating theatres where thousands of patients receive free life-changing surgeries each year, including: maxillofacial surgery to remove tumors and repair cleft lips and palates, ophthalmic surgery to remove cataracts, orthopaedic surgery to straighten legs and correct club feet, plastic reconstructive surgery to repair severe burn contractures, and more.
The former Danish rail ferry also doubles as a mobile training facility for each nation it visits – training hundreds of local healthcare professionals each field service, and mentoring surgeons to offer the above-mentioned speciality surgeries in their own host country.
What makes the ship-based hospital platform so effective?
A ship provides one substantial benefit over a land-based facility: control of environment. Whereas a land-based clinic or hospital is ultimately limited by the local infrastructure (i.e. electricity, water, etc.), a hospital ship is not constrained by these factors, making it a sustainable delivery platform in the developing world.
The Africa Mercy is outfitted with world-class medical equipment, including access to computers, laboratories, and diagnostic tools. As a result, Mercy Ships is able to offer first-world quality care to the poorest of the poor.
The ship-based hospital model also provides an excellent venue for training projects. Utilizing a mobile platform, the organization is able to more easily bring capacity-building opportunities to Africa and tailor education projects to the specific health needs in the host nation.
By partnering with the host nation’s Ministry of Health, Mercy Ships can effectively prepare to bring a fully functioning hospital to a port city for a 10-month field service. This longer period allows for people from within the nation, especially inland rural areas, to travel the required distance to the ship and receive the surgery they need. This was characteristic of the 2019-2020 field service in Dakar, Senegal, where patients from 14 different regions received surgery, ensuring every region in the country was represented.
Soon to be ‘Two-of-a-Kind’
The hospital-ship model is proving to be a highly effective approach in addressing the global surgery crisis. Imagine what a fleet of hospital ships could do? Mercy Ships began 42 years ago with that very question in mind.
As unique as the Africa Mercy is in the realm of hospital ships, it won’t be the only one of its kind for much longer. It will be joined later in 2021 by the newest addition to the Mercy Ships fleet, the Global Mercy – the first ever purpose built civilian hospital ship. With greater crew and patient capacity, additional operating theatres, and an improved world class training facility onboard, the Global Mercy will more than double the capability for Mercy Ships to bring hope and healing to West African nations.
This scaling up of operations naturally means more volunteers are needed to fill crew positions – electricians, engineers, teachers, maritime workers, IT specialists, photographers, nurses, doctors, dining room staff, and many others. We encourage anyone interested to visit the Mercy Ships Canada website to apply: Volunteer with Mercy Ships Canada
Mercy Ships remains committed to its mission to bring hope and healing to the people of Africa, and is currently preparing to return as soon as possible.
Together we CAN change the healthcare narrative in Africa.
Written By: Mark Kitzman