"Mercy” health care ship docks

The 150m-long mobile hospital called “Africa Mercy” has docked in Benin’s economic capital Cotonou and is expected to provide free surgeries and other medical care until December.

The ship’s services include surgeries to treat fistula, flesh-eating diseases and orthopaedic deformities, as well as dental and eye care.

As of 12 February the non-profit organisation that operates the ship, Mercy Ships, sent a team from Cotonou north 400km to the towns of Parakou and Natitingou to conduct health screenings and identify candidates for surgery.

Parakou resident Alidou Mama told IRIN he would do anything necessary to go to Cotonou, home to the country’s only port, for eye care. “I will go no matter the cost of the trip. Because of my health, [the cost] will not hold me back. If needed, I will take a loan.” He said he was born with partial eyesight.

The eight-hour trip on public buses costs US$15. The average monthly salary in Benin was less than $50 in 2007, according to the World Bank.

Dismond Houinato, the Ministry of Health’s director of non-communicable diseases who coordinates the ship’s care delivery in Benin, told IRIN the ministry - with the help of NGOs working in Benin - will pay patients’ transportation costs. “Patients simply need to get to a central point for a health evaluation. If qualified, we will arrange for their trip.”

Mercy Ships estimates that of the approximately 48,000 blind people in Benin, half lost their sight because of cataracts. The surgeons, all volunteers, plan to perform some 3,000 dockside cataract surgeries. In addition, the ship will set up four eye care clinics near Cotonou, according to the organisation’s public relations manager, Pauline Rick.

Is free enough?

Student Boris Aïmihoué at Abomey Calavi University in Cotonou told IRIN it may be difficult to attract patients - even with free services. “There needs to be a lot of education and outreach in remote villages to get people to come.

“Often, their sociological reality and belief in sorcery make them not want to seek healthcare.”

Photo: Mercy Ships
Flyers showing successful surgeries with before and after pictures

Mercy Ships distributed pre-arrival French-language  posters advertising free dental and vision care.

For Cotonou-based electronics technician Raïmi Gbadamassi, that the ship is so needed is unfortunate. “It is time Africans count on themselves. We cannot always count on others. You cannot tell me that there are no Africans who can diagnose these diseases?”

Mercy Ships’ Rick said the organisation does not want to “drop in, treat some people and leave,” but rather, is committed to sustainable health care improvements that will last “long after the ship sets sail.” She said the visit’s goals include training local health workers on treating fistula, dental hygiene and mental health care.

As of 2004 there was approximately one doctor to cover every 27,000 residents and 12 dentists for the country of more than eight million, according to the government. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends at least one doctor per 10,000 residents to ensure basic care.

Mercy Ships is expected to set up a dental clinic in Akpakpa, on the outskirts of Cotonou, equipped to provide up to 20,000 procedures. Health screenings will be held in Cotonou on 19 February, required for patients seeking care from Mercy Ships.

Surgeons operate in six wards on the hospital ship, spread out over the rail deck of more than 1,000sqm. The ship has a laboratory, equipment that provides almost instantaneous diagnoses, and a satellite communication link to allow the crew to consult with doctors from around the world.

Volunteers are responsible to cover their own transportation, room and board for the weeks - even years - they work at sea. The NGO’s longest-serving surgeon has performed no-fee facial surgeries for 24 years, according to Mercy Ships.

Since 1978 the NGO’s fleet has docked more than 500 times in 70 different countries, according to its website.

This is the ship’s fourth visit to Benin in the past 12 years. Up to 700 people received care during each visit, according to the Ministry of Health.