Sierra Leone, Africa’s Mercy
Mercy Ships uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class health car services, capacity building and sustainable development to those without access in the developing world. Founded in 1978 by Don and Deyon Stephens, Mercy Ships has worked in more than 70 countries providing services valued at more than £530million and impacting about 2.9 million direct beneficiaries. Each year Mercy Ships has more than 1,200 volunteers from over 40 nations. Professionals including surgeons, dentists, nurses, health care trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers, and agriculturalists donate their time and skills to the effort. Mercy Ship is a Christian religious community where most people believe that they have been called by God to volunteer on the ship; where sex before marriage is discouraged, alcohol and tobacco are banned, and males and females live apart in separate cabins. Most of the crew members belong to a church that financially supports them while on board the ship. Some of the core members have been living on the ship for almost 25 years raising their children in a very secluded environment. The study of the bible is encouraged with Bible readings and other religious activities and most of the crew members pray several times a day before the activity they are doing – eating, playing drums, having some downtime, or performing surgery on a patient. The evangelization of members and patients, which do not belong to any Christian faith it’s widely encouraged.
Formerly a Danish rail ferry, the 499-foot 16, 572 GRT Africa Mercy was commissioned in May of 2007. It is a state-of-the-art floating hospital containing six operating rooms, a 78 bed ward, an intensive care unit, and accommodation for over 474 multi-national crew and personnel.
Most countries in the western Africa region rank among the lowest in the world in quality-of-life indicators such as child mortality rate, life expectancy, access to essential health care, basic education, and clean water and sanitation. The Africa Mercy serves this region, helping address the fragmented health and infrastructure systems, the lack of trained health care workers, and the inadequate resources that combine to prevent millions of children and adults from receiving life-saving treatments and vital medical services. The annual budget for the running of this hospital ship is estimated to be $ 6 million USD.
The ship’s design allows the Africa Mercy to dock in shallow ports which allows it to dock in spaces that are less accessible to other ships allowing cash-strapped countries to keep more desirable docks open to commercial vessels.
Since 1978, Mercy Ships has completed over 563 port visits in 53 developing nations and 17 developed nations with a Mercy Ship.
The Mercy Ships Dental team generally sets up off ship in a nearby location and provides preventative and restorative dental treatment for men, women, and children who would otherwise not receive dental care. In the space of 10 months, the team of volunteers will generally provide around 20,000 dental treatments whilst teaching patients waiting at dental clinics and students in primary and secondary schools basic dental hygiene and the importance of caring for their teeth. They also encourage culturally and technologically appropriate methods that do not require a toothbrush and toothpaste and promote oral health through mentoring local oral health educators and hygienists to work alongside the team, in schools and communities.
The eye team has established vision related screenings weekly during the 10 months of the ship’s port visit. Operable cases are given appointment cards for a surgery onboard. A growing number of children living in poverty have vision impairment and without access to treatment, lose their sight; of these, almost 60% die within a year of going blind. The MercyVision team addresses many of the surgical and medical eye needs of the children and adults in ports visited. The primary emphasis of surgical intervention is the removal of cataracts and a reduction in the prevalence of blindness. Non-surgical eye care focuses on the alleviation of problems associated with allergies, infections, injuries, and pain. In addition to the surgical focus, the MercyVision team provides opportunities for non-formal training and mentoring for local surgeons and eye health provides training to help build the in-country capacity to provide eye services, helping countries to reduce cataracts and blindness.
Living and working within the confines of a 499 foot, 8 deck ship can be challenging for the more than 450 full and part time crew members living onboard. Short-term single crew often share cabin space with up to 9 other single crew members. Quiet space is at a premium in cramped quarters. Many maritime and medical crew work shifts so time off is staggered. Simple pleasures like sharing a coffee in the café onboard, retreating to the quiet library or cooking food from one’s home country becomes an important part of keeping one’s sanity intact. The local beaches are often frequented and crew often make friends with some of the 170 local day volunteers serving onboard ship in port who introduce them to insights into life in their home countries.
Annually the ship has more than 1,200 volunteer crew representing more than 40 nations. In addition to the hospital on decks 4 and 5, the ship is also a self-contained floating community with accommodation for the crew onboard, including families, couples and singles. Professionals including surgeons, dentists, nurses, health care trainers, teachers, cooks, seamen, engineers, and agriculturalists donate their time and skills to the effort.
Today, 80% of the world’s fractures and the majority of clubfeet occur in developing nations. Yet, more than 75% of these same countries have no prosthetics training programs. Death and disability due to injuries often result from a lack of facilities, equipment, and trained personnel to give timely and appropriate care. Children afflicted with congenital conditions like clubfeet and Blount’s disease (bowed legs) must learn to tolerate difficult environmental conditions and live in constant pain. Working in partnership with West African Ministries of Health and local medical providers in the countries the ship docks, the Mercy Ships orthopedic team helps relieve the burden of orthopedic diseases and afflictions for those with little or no alternative hope. There are six operating theaters onboard the floating hospital ship. During ten weeks of surgery the team estimates that approximately 100 specialized surgeries will be performed in addition to special Ponseti Casting for young children in the hopes of avoiding surgery.
Furthermore, Sierra Leone’s existing medical structure is admittedly severely insufficient, even for those who can afford services. Water and electricity are often interrupted and medical waste disposal is limited. Without access to quality health care, many people needlessly suffering and die from curable medical conditions. Almost one in five Sierra Leonean children die before reaching age five. In 2008, the average life expectancy was 49 years. With more than 40% of the population under the age of 14, the next few years will be critical in Sierra Leone’s growth as this generation becomes the lifeline for the country. Despite these obstacles, Sierra Leone is working to strengthen the health care system and improve the quality of care available, which includes it’s welcoming of the Mercy Ship to it’s ports.