Making a difference in Zimbabwe

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Canadian Red Cross delegate Rachel Meagher

When Rachel Meagher, a health delegate for the Canadian Red Cross, left home on December 18, 2008 to join members of a Norwegian Red Cross emergency response unit in Zimbabwe she knew she would be missing the holidays in Montreal -- and her mom's cooking.

However, like all Red Cross delegates, Meagher knew that personal sacrifice sometimes goes hand-in-hand with helping to improve the lives of vulnerable people. She spent seven weeks in Zimbabwe and as other team members rotated in and out, she soon became one of its most senior members and the team’s corporate memory.

“I learned the names, faces and places that were key to our operation and developed strong working relationships with local health officials and Zimbabwe Red Cross volunteers,” said Meagher. “They are part of a group of individuals who work tirelessly to help others, with little in return.”

Zimbabwe is suffering widespread cholera outbreaks. Some of the hardest-hit communities are as far as 150 kilometres from a health clinic and many clinics have no doctors. Some clinics have only one or a few nurses who may find themselves caring for 20 to 50 severely ill cholera patients within a very short time. These conditions had an obvious impact on the ability of health care workers to effectively treat patients so Meagher and her team devised an action plan to reduce the number of deaths.

In the town of Mandava in Midlands province, the solution was simple but effective. It was hoped that centralizing treatment in some villages would drastically reduce the rate of disease transmission, provide more effective treatment and a hygiene education centre for patients and their families.

Shortly after setting up a cholera treatment centre there, Meagher’s team developed a workshop for nurses that included reviewing the pathology, symptoms and presentation of cholera. A training exercise then focused on setting up a treatment centre and reviewing disinfection practices and procedures.

”The pilot of the cholera outbreak management workshop was simple but amazing,” says Meagher. “Only 24 hours after its delivery, the case fatality rate in the centre dropped from 10 per cent to one per cent. In addition to these amazing results, it was personally gratifying to see the increased confidence and improved morale among nurses.”

“To add to our success, the Ministry of Health took notice of our efforts and used our model to develop a ‘train the trainer’ program so the workshop could be replicated in all the districts throughout the province,” says Meagher. “This is a great example of the collaborative approach of the Red Cross and I believe it validated the health professionals and the work they are doing. We acknowledged their expertise and allowed them to grow professionally while addressing an urgent need in their community.”

Thanks to the generosity of the Canadian public, the Red Cross is making an impact in Zimbabwe but further support is needed.