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Mobile hospitals benefit tribal residents
More than 100,000 patients benefit every year, officials say
By Ashfaq Yusufzai
PESHAWAR – Mobile hospitals are proving a blessing for patients living in insurgency-hit, inaccessible areas of the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) as they obtain specialised diagnostic services and treatment on their doorstep.
“Our medical teams visit far-flung areas in seven tribal agencies and six Frontier Regions (FRs),” Dr Niaz Afridi, head of the mobile hospitals, said.
Every year, more than 100,000 patients benefit from the programme run by the FATA Directorate of Health Services. The programme started in 2003 as terrorism limited FATA residents’ access to medical care.
The innovative concept, which began after 14 vehicles were donated by South Korea, is vital to areas where militants have damaged medical facilities. It has 18 vehicles now after the federal government added four in 2010 in response to the service’s popularity.
“Most of the 60 facilities damaged by the Taliban (in FATA) are being rebuilt now,” Afridi said. “Until the completion of (their) reconstruction, the mobile hospitals are being sent to examine the patients and prescribe them medication.”
Officials announce the arrival of the mobile hospitals in advance, so the units always attract a crowd, said mobile hospital gynaecologist Shaheena Begum.
“We also rush to the areas hit by epidemics, like gastroenteritis, measles and diarrhoea,” she said.
Since the October 2005 earthquake in Hazara Division, there has been no looking back for mobile hospital medics, as they serve more patients with every visit.
“In 2011, we provided treatment to 107,158 patients in all tribal agencies,” Afridi said. “The majority of the patients belonged to the areas that were worst-hit by violence and were undergoing army (counter-terrorism) operations.”
“We also operated on 12,987 patients in 2011,” he said.
The biggest beneficiaries of the programme are patients with eye diseases, who can receive operations on the spot.
“We carried out 5,989 cataract surgeries last year, which resulted in the restoration of eyesight of 4,832 people,” he said.
Razia Bibi, 60, a previously blind resident of Tirah locality in Khyber Agency, was one of those patients.
“I can recite the Koran now and pray for the doctors who treated me,” she said. “I also informed other people with such problems in my neighbourhood about the free treatment and dozens of patients benefited.”
The mobile hospitals also work outside FATA, and have helped flood survivors in Nowshera and Charsadda in 2010. “The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government made the request, and we were the first ones there,” Afridi said.
“Within two months, our team treated 30,000 flood (victims),” he said. “Similarly, we gave free diagnostic and treatment services to 22,000 internally displaced persons from Malakand.”
The KP and Punjab governments now are interested in providing mobile medical care for their populations, said Dr. Nauman Mujahid, FATA Health Services deputy director of development.
“We ... would co-operate with them in development of mobile hospitals,” Mujahid said. “They are extremely useful in natural calamities that also damage health facilities.”
“We have 150 highly trained staffers, including 11 male medical officers, four gynaecologists, four surgeons and three physicians, and one dental surgeon, ophthalmologist, trauma surgeon and plastic surgeon, as well as nurses and paramedics,” he said.
The fully equipped vehicles contain miniature operating rooms, ultrasound machines, electrocardiograph machines and other features, he said.
If a patient requires hospitalisation, doctors refer the individual to tertiary care hospitals in Peshawar for free treatment, Mujahid added.
From temporary to permanent
The mobile hospitals show no sign of disappearing from the landscape.
“We often receive requests from the army and political administration for medical camps in their respective areas; therefore, we bought more vehicles,” Dr. Fawad Khan, director of FATA Health Services, told Central Asia Online.
“When the wave of terrorism began in FATA, there was a big issue of absenteeism ... in health facilities, which prompted us to start the mobile hospitals,” he said. “Initially it was launched as project, but now it has become part of the annual development programme of FATA health.
“We allocate Rs. 60m ($660,000) per year to the programme and plans are afoot to expand it,” he said. “We have pioneered a system that is the first of its kind in Pakistan.”
Residents of violence-wracked areas appreciate the difference the hospitals make, said Bajaur Agency lawmaker Akhunzada Chittan.
Security is provided for the units, Fawad said.
“We work in close collaboration with the Pakistan army because it knows the sensitive areas,” he said.