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Providing health care to tsunami survivors

23-02-2005 Feature

Local health workers who benefited from a joint ICRC/Canadian Red Cross training programme have played an important part in responding to the health needs of local communities in Sri Lanka.

" I am very happy to be able to help the people here during their difficulties, " says 31 year old Mathyvannan Somaheswary, " My desire is to serve the population affected by this disaster, particularly those who are not able to take care of themselves. "


Mathyvannan Somaheswary is one of the 50 Sri Lanka Red Cross community health workers trained as part of a joint project of the ICRC and the Canadian Red Cross. They had just completed their formal training and passed their certification exams when the tsunami struck.

She and her colleagues were among those who provided trained assistance in the first hours after the tsunami.

" Because they were already in the area they were able to help in the rescue operations and provide wound dressings to hundreds of people, " explains Lily Montano, the ICRC Health Delegate who oversaw the training of the community health workers.

For the first two weeks after December 26, Mathyvannan worked at the nearby hospital providing dressings and other first aid to the injured. Since that time, she and a colleague have been posted at the Vidiyananda College welfare centre in Mulliawalai to provide basic health services to the 350 families forced to live in the centre after their houses were damaged or destroyed by the tsunami.

Assisted by three volunteers from the Sri Lankan Red Cross, the community health workers apply dressings and carry out other forms of first aid. They are also trained in maternal and child health care, care for the elderly and the handicapped, as well as how to identify more severe illnesses and risk pregnancies for appropriate referral.

A good part of their day is spent coaching people on proper hygiene and preventive health care. " Health education is critical to ensure there is no outbreak of infectious diseases, " explains Anne Tunbridge, a health delegate from the ICRC who regularly visits the welfare centres in the region.

" Several families are living together in a single room and sharing temporary sanitation facilities. They are often in a state of shock, so basic health messages must be reinforced constantly to ensure they maintain proper hygiene habits in this unfamiliar environment, " she explains.

During their rounds in the different buildings of the welfare centre, Mathyvannan Somaheswary and her colleagues also urge people to keep their living areas clean, often setting the example by picking up any rubbish they see and encouraging others to join in the clean-up.

In addition, they have received some basic training in counselling techniques.

" There is a 70 year old woman here who lost two children and three grandchildren in the tsunami, " she explains. " When I first met her, she broke down in tears saying she could hear the children calling to her. "  Mathyvannan now sets aside time each day to sit with her and listen.

The community health workers are usually based in 19 Red Cross Health centres in the area. According to need, they are also w orking in the welfare centres and will be present in the transit camps when the families move there.

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