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Colombia: medical care for an isolated community

28-11-2005 Feature

Because of the internal conflict in Colombia, the inhabitants of Vásquez, Urrao municipality (Antioquia), had been deprived of medical care for two years. In late 2005, a health brigade finally managed to reach this remote area under ICRC escort.

" The conditions in which these people live are deplorable, " said Arcelinda Perea Escobar, an auxiliary nurse attached to the brigade, which visited Vásquez from 31 October to 4 November 2005. " They have no access to clean water, no electricity and no wastewater disposal system. The result is serious health problems. "

  From 31 October to 4 November the health brigade  
  • gave more than 430 medical consultations
  • provided dental care for 110 people and oral-hygiene care for 270 people
  • treated 220 people
  • vaccinated over 330 people
  • held 11 health information sessions for a total of 450 people

The 5,000-strong community live in scattered hamlets several hours away from each other on foot. The wooden houses are built along paths that cut across the slopes of steep mountains. From the Urrao road, it takes two days to reach the area on muleback. The villagers grow crops (maize, rice and bananas) and herd for a living. The access problems due to the area's remoteness have been compounded by the conflict, preventing all trade with other areas.
The 125 inhabitants of the main village of Vásquez collect water at a nearby spring, but wastewater and refuse are left untreated. Diseases like malaria, leishmaniasis, gastritis and arthritis are rife, as are respiratory disorders and kidney infections. Other health problems are caused by malnutrition.
Under the Programa Aéreo de Salud (PAS), an airborne health programme run by the Urrao hospital and town council, helicopters are used to carry medical supplies and personnel to remote areas. In recent years, however, the security problems caused by the civil war have made it dangerous even to fly to Vásquez. The presence of several armed groups has further isolated the community, whose inhabitants did not see a doctor or receive medical supplies for two years. The community's two schoolteachers, who have a rudimentary knowledge of first aid, distributed painkillers instead.    
  ©ICRC/S. Mutti    
  Vasquez region. People waiting in line for a medical consultation.   

In October 2005 a PAS helicopter finally landed in Vásquez. The ICRC managed to guarantee the health brigade's safety thanks to the contacts it had established with the various parties to the conflict. Protected by the red cross emblem, the helicopter made several round trips. On its first flight back it took a woman who had broken her hip 10 days earlier and had been unable to receive any treatment. Later, it flew out another woman who was about to give birth.

During the four days they spent in the area, the doctors and nurses gave hundreds of consultations, provided medical and dental care and administered vaccinations.

Teaching people to care for themselves is another crucial aspect of the health brigade's work. In Vásquez, information sessions were held on family planning, hygiene, disease prevention and other topics.

" It would be extremely difficult for us to enter this area without the ICRC's help, given Urrao's complex security situation and the tensions caused by our presence, " said Dr Gabriel Jaime Betancourt, coordinating physician of the Urrao hospital. " I greatly appreciate the work the ICRC is doing with armed groups to guarantee our safety. Without such guarantees it would be impossible to work here. "

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