Red Cross fills the gaps when health care workers fall sick

Published: 22 June 2016 8:30 CET

By: Katherine Mueller, IFRC

Drive approximately 1,000 kilometres northeast of Nairobi, and you will reach Mandera County, where Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia meet. With a population of just over one million, you will find most people here are nomadic pastoralists, ready to move their camels, sheep and cattle to where there is ample water and land for grazing.

It is one of the poorest counties in the country, with more than 80 per cent of the population living below the poverty line. According to the Government of Kenya, there are 65 health facilities in the county, however, access can be a challenge with there being one doctor for more than 308,000 people. 

So, when disease strikes in this county, its impact cuts deep. There are currently two major disease outbreaks in Mandera – cholera and chikungunya. One caused by poor hygiene and sanitation and waste management; the other by mosquitos. The chikungunya outbreak was first detected in mid-May. In the weeks that have followed, 900 cases have been reported. Perhaps most critically, the mosquito that transmits this virus has infected 270 health care workers – or 50 per cent of all health care workers operating in Mandera County – thus affecting their ability to adequately respond to either outbreak. 

Enter the Kenya Red Cross Society.

With more than 1,200 cases of cholera, and 19 deaths, reported, and response capacity suffering, the Government of Kenya asked the National Society to establish a cholera treatment centre. Since the 60-bed facility opened, Red Cross staff have treated more than 100 patients, most of them female and under the age of 25. 

“The Kenya Red Cross is extremely strong in community-based health care,” said Dr Fatoumata Nafo-Traoré, Director, Africa region for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). “With so many health care providers unable to report to work, Red Cross staff have played a vital role in helping to fill the gap in service, particularly in the management of cholera cases.”

Red Cross volunteers are also visiting communities, conducting social mobilization for both cholera and chikungunya – teaching people how to avoid being infected, including proper hygiene, sanitation, access to clean water, and waste management, and removing breeding grounds for mosquitos. Activities are being implemented under the umbrella of the IFRC’s Disaster Relief Emergency Fund and additional support from other partners.

While digging in and helping community members collect waste for proper disposal, the IFRC Director expressed support for any locally-led system which would contribute to improved waste management at the community level. “It is important that people see the connection between an unhygienic environment and disease outbreaks,” said Dr Nafo-Traoré. “It is just as important that they are involved in finding solutions. This is what leads to sustainability and, ultimately, changes in behaviour.”

Both the IFRC Director and the head of the IFRC office for eastern Africa and the Indian Ocean Islands recognized the need for developing a more comprehensive plan for Mandera. “The activities we have witnessed are commendable,” said Getachew Ta’a, head of the IFRC office in eastern Africa. “However, given the recurring challenges being experienced in Mandera, we should look at developing a more holistic and comprehensive approach that will help address these multitude of issues, be they related to health, disaster response, or community resilience.”

The Disaster Relief Emergency Fund (DREF) is an IFRC fund set up to ensure that immediate financial support is available for Red Cross Red Crescent emergency response to disasters. Allocations may be made as start-up loans in the case of large-scale disasters, grants to meet the costs of responding to small-scale emergency relief operations, or for making preparations in the case of imminent disaster. All requests for DREF allocations are reviewed on a case-by-case basis. Money can be authorized and released within 24 hours.

Chikungunya was first noted in Tanzania in 1952 and is derived from a local language, meaning ‘to become contorted’ which describes the stooped appearance of those suffering from the effects of the mosquito-borne virus. It causes fever and severe joint pain as well as headaches and nausea, and is often mistaken for dengue, which causes similar symptoms. The virus is common in Africa, Asia and the Indian subcontinent.

Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. It is caused by consumption of contaminated food or water. There are an estimated 1.4 to 4.3 million cases, and 28,000 to 142,000 deaths worldwide due to cholera every year. However, up to 80 per cent of cases can be successfully treated with oral rehydration salts.