… Prepared by Travel Medicine Alliance Member, St Kilda Road, Melbourne
Jacinta Bongiorno has worked as a practice nurse at St Kilda Rd Travel Medicine for 18 months. Prior to commencing her position at St Kilda Rd, Jacinta worked as an educator in Tanzania, which she found extremely rewarding. Although she enjoyed her time working for the practice, she was extremely passionate about assisting disadvantaged communities. Thus, in early 2012, she decided to again leave Melbourne to work for a non-profit aid organisation, foodwatershelter, in Tanzania.
Tanzania is a major tourist destination, with approximately 1 million visitors entering the country per year. There are a range of incredible attractions, including Mount Kiliminjaro, the Serengeti National Park and the Norrongo Conservation Area.
However, Tanzania is also one of the poorest nations in the world. Shockingly, 50% of all Tanzanians live below the poverty line, and approximately one-third live in abject poverty. Infant and maternal mortality rates remain amongst the highest in the world, and more than one third of all children under the age of 5 are malnourished. Literacy rates are also extremely low. The country is battling with major health problems, particularly infectious diseases, including malaria, HIV, TB and numerous others. As a consequence, life expectancy is around 53 years of age, and twelve percent of children are orphans.Foodwatershelter is an Australian not-for-profit that was established in 2005 by 5 Australian women. It has subsequently grown, and is now run by 50 volunteers from Australia, the USA and abroad. Their goal is to build and manage environmentally friendly villages in underprivileged areas, and provide onsite education, health and social facilities for vulnerable women, children and orphans in the local community. Their first project is Kesho Leo Children’s Village in Tanzania. Kesho Leo is run by a Tanzanian staff, supported by a team of volunteers. It is home to seven women who head households of their own children and other child orphans.
Jacinta undertook the role of Health Manager at Kesho Leo, where she was able to develop and coordinate a range of health services and strategies, and provide invaluable health education to the local women. Her role proved to be very challenging, and on numerous occasions, she was involved in the care of life threatening conditions, such as HIV, Malaria and TB. Whilst caring for sick patients, she was forced to battle with the poor health care available in the country; many hospitals had 2 patients in one bed. Additionally, there was limited access to a range of services we take for granted in Australia, such as a simple plain x-ray machine, which would frequently break down. Jacinta also questioned the accuracy of the pathology tests – many patients with extremely different symptoms would somehow end up with the same diagnosis and treatment, which concerned her immensely. Due to the lack of education and literacy within the country, it was a constant struggle to deal with the many dangerous myths circulating about health. For instance, many men believed the myth that HIV could be cured by sleeping with a virgin or an albino.
In some instances, the important health aids that were handed out were instead used for other purposes. Mosquito nets designed to reduce the risk of malaria were instead used for food storage.
Whilst these issues created a hurdle, Jacinta still loved the work, and felt privileged to be involved, “the most rewarding part of this sort of work is seeing people get health information and advice that they otherwise wouldn’t have got. Like on community health day, where we saw 170 people in 4 hours. They all had HIV testing and then … we checked their blood pressure and discussed any health concerns they had“, Jacinta remarked of her experience.
Jacinta and her partner, Josh, also developed very close relationships with many of the families. One of the mothers named one of her children Jacinta, and another mother named her son Josh. Overall, she found the locals to be very friendly and welcoming, and responded to the work very openly. They were keen to listen to any advice and treatment that could be provided. This made the experience all the more rewarding.
Jacinta and Josh have returned to Australia, but they plan to continue to work with disadvantaged communities. Jacinta is studying for her Master of Public Health, a qualification which will enhance her skills in working within disadvantaged communities.
And incidentally, they did also get to manage to visit some of the spectacular tourist attractions in Tanzania. Most importantly, Jacinta ensured she had all of the recommended travel vaccinations, and used her knowledge of travel medicine to ensure they both stayed healthy.