Desperate health realities in Gelan Idero

Desperate health realities in Gelan Idero
The now-closed health post at Gelan Gurra, Ethiopia.

The now-closed health post at Gelan Gurra, Ethiopia.

Until recently, it was possible for the people of Gelan Idero to walk – or, if very ill, to be carried on stretcher, or by horse or mule back or horse cart – 10 kilometres to the nearest health post.  But no longer.

Gelan Idero is one of three linked villages adjacent to the Gelan Gurra district, where the closest health post was located. But the Gelan Gurra health post has suddenly shut down and doesn’t look likely to re-open.  That leaves the villagers of Gelan Idero even further away from the closest facility for health care – the hospital in Akaki town, five kilometres further on the other side of Gelan Gurra.

Aynalem, a 29-year-old health extension worker in the Gelan Idero says she and her colleagues do not know why the Gelan Gurra health post is no longer functioning. It used to provide pre- and post-natal care and follow up, delivery service and patient treatment. It even had a pharmacy.

Now, Aynalem and her two colleagues, the sole health care practitioners in the village, go door-to-door in Gelan Idero twice a week providing health education, vaccination check-ups and referrals for villagers, especially pregnant women and new mothers.

“An emergency in Gelan Idero is the worst because there is no health facility nearby,” says Aynalem. Distance and access to safe transportation remain barriers to health for Gelan Idero’s women, children and men.  Something as simple as asking a neighbour for a ride to the hospital for us in Canada is well beyond the reach of many villagers in Gelan Idero.

Occasionally, in an emergency, the sick are carried to the hospital by relatives and friends on a stretcher bed.

For emergencies beyond the usual discomfort of diarrhea, flu and intestinal pain, villagers make the 15-kilometre journey to Akaki Health Centre. This modern hospital is named after Ethiopia’s famous marathon runner, double Beijing Olympic Gold Medalist and current Olympic 10,000-metre champion, Tirunesh Dibaba.

A gift from the Chinese Government to the Ethiopian people, Tirunesh Dibaba Hospital is now serving five adjacent villages including Gelan Idero. With a staff of 16 officers and 24 nurses, midwives and pharmacy technicians (no doctors) – all of whom have government-certified training – the services this hospital provides go a long way to address the emergencies that face the residents of the surrounding communities – including the hundreds who are seen here daily.

For Aynalem, unhygienic practices and the lack of a health post close to villagers are the main barriers to good health in Gelan Idero. Preventable illnesses like typhoid and typhus, which are common among children and adults, are prevalent in the village.  For children less than five years old, diarrhea, skin disease and respiratory illnesses are the most pervasive – and can worsen to become life-threatening if not treated quickly and effectively.

“Limited access to clean water and toilets contribute to the prevalence of these infections,” says Aynalem.  She and her colleagues work hard to support the villagers in learning and applying basic health practices, such as purifying contaminated water. But it takes time for villagers to see and understand the link between the water they use from the river and their frequently sick children.  Despite the challenges, Aynalem and her fellow health care workers are fully committed to the slow but steady process of education that will ultimately improve the health of Gelan Idero’s residents.