New Features

Delivering healthcare aboard Africa's hospital ship

Delivering healthcare aboard Africa's hospital ship

Mercy Ships New Zealand
Mercy Ships logo

Sharon Walls

Trailer: The Surgery Ship, National Geographic channel. From 1 Dec, Fridays at 7.30pm

New Zealand volunteers have quietly gone about the business of providing free, essential surgery for people in developing nations for 40 years with the international hospital ship charity Mercy Ships.

New Zealand volunteers have quietly gone about the business of providing free, essential surgery for people in developing nations for 40 years with the international hospital ship charity Mercy Ships.

The not-for-profit was birthed with the dream of alleviating the impact of accidental trauma, birth complications and the lack of surgical intervention for amenable disease which can cause life-long disability or death.

According to the World Health Organization, lack of access to safe surgery in developing nations now causes more deaths worldwide every year than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

Mercy Ships operates the world’s largest civilian hospital ship, the 16,000 tonne Africa Mercy. From this healthcare platform, six surgical specialities, dental care and medical capacity-building programmes are delivered without charge to a carefully vetted West African nation for ten months at a time.

The mission of Mercy Ships is to make access to safe and affordable surgery a reality for those in extreme poverty, and to help train medical professionals to continue the work long after the ship departs.

 .. lack of access to safe surgery in developing nations now causes more deaths worldwide every year than HIV, tuberculosis and malaria combined. 

During each 10-month field service, around 2000 surgeries are delivered to patients in West Africa who have no other access to healthcare

In 2014, Dr Luke Wee, an Auckland GP, spent five months volunteering on board the Africa Mercy in the Republic of the Congo. He returned for a few weeks to fill a locum role earlier this year, while the vessel was in Benin, West Africa.

Dr Wee describes some of the problems that are unique to the patients Mercy Ships serves.

Dr Luke Wee volunteered onboard the hospital ship Africa Mercy in the Republic of the Congo and in Benin

"People in West Africa face immense barriers to receiving care when they need it, due to both upstream and downstream factors. While there are basic primary healthcare services in West African countries, there are barriers to accessing them due to financial, cultural, geographical and political factors. Individuals with difficult-to-treat conditions are often left without any means to access specialty care.

"We provided assistance in specialties that are not easily available in Africa, like maxillofacial, reconstructive plastics, urogynaecological, and paediatric orthopaedic surgeries. General surgeries were offered for a wide range of debilitating conditions: heart-wrenching diseases of poverty like noma and vesicovaginal fistula.

"We delivered palliative care for individuals with incurable malignancies and nutritional support for malnourished infants. Capacity building with local physicians was included in the wide range of non-clinical programmes that Mercy Ships ran.

Nutritional programmes are provided prior to cleft-lip and palate surgeries for babies who are malnourished as a result of their condition

"During my stint in Benin, I was most impacted by the personal connections with my patients.

"There were novel experiences – doing things I generally do not get to do as a GP in suburban Auckland, such as identifying ascariasis under the microscope, starting anti-retroviral therapy on a patient newly diagnosed with HIV or meeting local voodoo shamans in villages.

"There were more mundane experiences like persuading a middle-aged lady with hypertension that taking her pills was important, and moving experiences like reassuring and praying for a young teenager who was facing surgery with a gigantic osteosarcoma of his forearm and who feared losing his whole limb.

The high level of interaction with his patients was one of the highlights for Dr Wee during is tour of duty with Mercy Ships

Each year around 40 New Zealanders – including theatre nurses, anaesthesia staff, surgeons, physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals – volunteer with Mercy Ships

"As a GP, I fitted into the healthcare team by providing general medical, pre-operative and post-operative care in conjunction with a fantastic team of surgeons, anaesthetists and nurses from all over the world."

"Non-profit charitable organisations like Mercy Ships are an important part of global health," concludes Dr Wee.

"GPs can play a part in global health directly and indirectly. While acknowledging the challenges that we have in New Zealand such as primary care funding inequity, child poverty and mental health issues, there are also great needs beyond our shores.

"GPs in New Zealand can be involved by developing an interest in travel medicine and neglected infectious diseases, providing health services to refugees, giving financially to international aid organisations or even volunteering precious professional time."

During the August 2016–June 2017 field service in Benin, West Africa the healthcare services performed by Mercy Ships included 1957 free essential surgeries. 1962 medical professionals undertook mentoring programmes or attended specialty workshops. 6942 dental patients received multiple treatments.

Each year around 40 New Zealanders – including theatre nurses, anaesthesia staff, surgeons, physiotherapists and other healthcare professionals – volunteer with Mercy Ships alongside people from 40 other nations.

Volunteer positions that are available in 2018 include Crew Physician, Physical Therapist and Senior Ophthalmic Technician. Go to www.mercyships.org.nz for more information.