The world’s largest largest charity hospital ship, the Africa Mercy, has docked in Dakar, Senegal, where it will serve the population throughout the 2019-20 field service. The floating hospital is staffed by over 400 volunteers – including scores of Canadians – from nations around the world who donate their time and professional skills to treat dental and eye problems, cleft lips and palates, tumours, club feet, childbirth injuries, burns and a variety of other conditions.
The Africa Mercy may have just docked, but planning the 2019-20 field service has taken Mercy Ships years of preparation. Mercy Ships is always invited by each host nation’s government to serve the country, working closely with the Ministry of Health and other departments. After a Protocol Agreement was signed in 2017, advance teams have been on the ground for months working with local government and healthcare workers to plan and maximize resources to provide the most effective aid possible. Even though the Africa Mercy only docks in each port for 10 months every field service, Mercy Ships actually partners with up to 5 nations at one time to plan these services years in advance. Currently we are also working with Cameroon, Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
In each field service, Mercy Ships provides assistance in 4 ways:
- Delivering free surgical and dental services to children, families and communities in need
- Strengthening our host nation’s surgical healthcare system through training, infrastructure and mentoring
- Conducting research and evaluations to improve the impact of activities and share knowledge with local healthcare communities
- Advocating for safe, timely and affordable surgery for underserved populations in Africa
During the 2019-20 field service in Senegal, Mercy Ships is hoping to provide 1,200 – 1,700 life-changing surgeries onboard the Africa Mercy, treat over 4,000 people at a land-based clinic, and provide training to hundreds of local healthcare professionals. All of this will be provided at no cost to the recipients, and will help to improve the overall healthcare system in Senegal.
The Africa Mercy is a large ship, but not all the service Mercy Ships offers in field services take place onboard. For example, the Mercy Ships land-based dental clinic usually sees the largest number of patients during a field service, partly because dental procedures do not take as long (and are often less complex) than surgical ones. Before the Africa Mercy arrived in Dakar, the dental clinic location had already been selected and prepared. The clinic will be used by Mercy Ships throughout the field service and then returned to the local healthcare system with its new equipment. The new facility will also be used for training.
Mercy Ships has also established a land-based Hospital Out-Patient Extension (HOPE) Centre in Dakar. This centre is a crucial part of the field service, offering a safe, secure, and hygienic environment where patients can come to prepare and recover from surgery. It provides a home away from home for patients, who would otherwise have nowhere to stay after their long journeys to the ship.
Mercy Ships also runs an off-ship agricultural training program, where agricultural specialists will be involved with training local partners. These partners will in-turn train farmers in aspects of sustainable, organic farming techniques to increase nutrition and improve general community health.
So, how will patients and partners be selected in Senegal?
The President of Senegal and the Minister of Health and Social Action have requested that Mercy Ships focus on the needs of patients both in the capital and interior regions of the country. This means that 75% of patients will come from the 13 interior regions of Senegal.
To ensure we reach as many people as possible, Mercy Ships has built a unique mobile app that allows prospective patients to be identified before the Africa Mercy arrives (though selections continue throughout the service). This mobile technology allows medical volunteers to access and consider demographic information, medical history and photographs for review, referral and final selections.
As the Africa Mercy ties up, volunteer crew are prepared for the next 10 months of hard work as they strive to transform as many lives as possible. At times, the tasks ahead seem vast – globally 5 billion people lack access to safe affordable surgery, and our work can only directly address a small percentage of these populations. Often, we are asked, “How can you possibly change the situation?” We help to spark change at a national level through partnerships with each country’s healthcare system, and globally through our awareness efforts about global surgery. But at the end of the day, “the answer is simple,” says our longest-serving volunteer surgeon, Dr. Gary Parker: “We can change it one life at a time”.