These doctors are using boats to bring healthcare to a remote African archipelago

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Douglas Broom, Senior Writer, Formative Content

  • Everyday medical emergencies can become life threatening for people who live on islands.
  • For the 3,000 inhabitants of Lamu County, Kenya, treatment used to be an eight-hour boat ride away.
  • But now a team of Safari Doctors is bringing healthcare to the people who live on the area’s 65 islands.

Umra Omar runs a very unusual medical practice, ministering to the needs of 3,000 patients living across 6,474 square kilometres and 65 islands on the north coast of Kenya. She calls her team the Safari Doctors.

The residents of Lamu County, close to the border with Somalia, have the same medical needs as people anywhere else in the world. Omar should know – this is where she grew up. The difference is, they can’t just summon an ambulance when trouble strikes.

“If you look at a village… like Kiunga, where if you have any complication, require a C-section or anything, and you’re trying to come to the main hospital, it’s about an 8-hour big boat ride, or you’re hiring a speedboat, $300 for a one-way ticket,” says Omar.

That’s why Safari Doctors take health care out to the people of the Lamu archipelago by boat, providing monthly mobile clinics for people who would otherwise be reliant on village dispensaries with only basic medicines.

More than a third of Kenyans live below the poverty line and 72% of the country’s population live in rural areas, according to the World Bank. Omar says the cost of travelling to obtain healthcare is a major drain on community and individual resources.

A study in The Lancet found that 29% of people in sub-Saharan Africa live more than two hours’ travel time from a hospital. The World Economic Forum’s report ‘Medicines from The Sky’ said healthcare in Africa could be transformed by using drones to deliver medicines.

African nations have been global leaders in using drones to improve public health, the report said, with a national drone delivery programme underway in Rwanda and Ghana’s pioneering use of drones to deliver COVID-19 vaccines in 2021.

As well as routine healthcare, Safari Doctors also provide immunisation, family planning and gynaecology services as well as dental care. They say providing good quality primary care helps avoid emergencies later.

“When we first started in 2015, our nurse, Kalu, all he had to do was get on a motorbike, get to five villages, and that was like 100 patients a month, especially women and kids,” says Omar.

“And now, seven years later, we go out over a period of two weeks. We also have a veterinary department promoting ‘one health’. Because, if you’re talking of rural health care, you have to talk of animals – not only as a source of livelihood, but also the issues of zoonosis and preventing animal-human transfer of diseases.

“So that is about 3,000 patients across over two-dozen villages and a few hundred animals,” she adds.

Rooted in the community

Community involvement is key to providing effective healthcare, says Omar. “Things on the ground are different when you get to it,” she says. “So, really having your roots and tentacles on that ground for us was about engaging the community chiefs, the youth, the women and giving whatever you’re doing that ownership of the community actually embracing it.”

Omar named her organisation Safari Doctors – Safari means journey in both Swahili and Arabic – and says that the word has come to mean a tourist experience, but in terms of health it means the difference between life and death.

Although she’s not a doctor, Omar has a degree in neuroscience. She founded Safari Doctors in 2015 and is one of the World Economic Forum’s Young Global Leaders.

“My one statement for the Davos leadership is that you are as healthy and as well as a person next to you. And that applies as a country or as an individual, as a community, that your wellness is only as great as the wellness of that person right next to you,” she said.

At least half of the world’s population lack access to even basic health services, according to the World Health Organization. Omar’s determination to change that has led her to run for election as a governor of Lamu County.

She says there’s an opportunity for “a big unlocking of possibilities around health care, education and the economy. So we’re now in full campaign mode and taking social change to the next level”, she adds.

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