NEWS | April 3, 2008

Joint team provides medical aid in Africa

By Staff Sgt. Sergio Jimenez , CJTF-HOA

Navy Capt. Michael Curran, a medical officer at Camp Lemonier’s medical clinic, is deployed from Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Md., examines and treats local villagers for minor and acute illnesses. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Cohen)
Navy Capt. Michael Curran, a medical officer at Camp Lemonier’s medical clinic, is deployed from Bethesda Naval Medical Center, Md., examines and treats local villagers for minor and acute illnesses. (Navy photo by Petty Officer 1st Class Scott Cohen)

CAMP LEMONIER, Djibouti (April 3, 2008) – In many underdeveloped countries access to even the most basic medical care is a big problem. Medical conditions and infections that are easily treated in developed countries can become life threatening if left untreated for a long period of time. This is especially true for young children and pregnant women.

This is why medical and dental teams from the 11th Marine Expeditionary Unit/Tarawa Expeditionary Strike Group collaborated with Soldiers of the 354th Civil Affairs Brigade, Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa, to provide basic medical and dental treatment to hundreds of Djiboutian citizens during a series of Medical Civil Action Projects from March 29 through April 2 in the remote villages of Goubetto, Chabelley and Dammerjog.

The doctors, dentists and Navy and Marine Corps hospital corpsmen, embarked aboard USS Tarawa, USS Germantown and USS Cleveland also conducted preventive health presentations and delivered basic hygiene items to one of the poorest regions in the world.

The 11th MEU/Tarawa ESG is in Djibouti taking part in routine training exercises as part of their scheduled seven month deployment through the Western Pacific and Arabian Gulf region.

The medical aid mission was led by a functional specialty team from the 354th CAB, stationed here, and was coordinated with the Djibouti Ministry of Health and the U.S. Embassy in Djibouti.

During three separate missions, the medical teams left Camp Lemonier early in the morning aboard 4X4 vehicles and military 7-ton trucks and returned late in the evening. They traveled over pot-holed city streets, dirt and rocky roads to the small villages of Goubetto, Chabelley, Dammerjog.

"Overall, we treated more than a thousand patients," said HMC Sam Y. Kim, independent duty corpsman, Combat Logistics Battalion 11, 11th MEU, Camp Pendleton, Calif.

There aim was to work with local and foreign doctors and train local nurses as part of an ongoing effort to establish good working relationships and build up the healthcare capacity in the area, said Cmdr. Alan Philippi, public health physician, functional specialty team, 354th CAB.

“We paid particular attention to nurses,” said Philippi, because they are the first to see and have the most interaction with patients.

March 30, the joint medical team visited Goubetto, a village about a 90-minute drive from Camp Lemonier. There they found long lines of patients waiting for them. By the end of the visit, the team treated more than 260 patients, said Kim, who is from San Diego.

"The majority of the patients were women and children and most were treated for respiratory ailments, coughs, colds, skin diseases and malnutrition," said Kim. "We gave them multi-vitamins to treat the malnutrition and antibiotics to treat worms," said Kim.

Some small children were treated for ear infections and chest colds and those who required advanced care were referred to the local hospital.

Although the doctors, medics and corpsmen did not encounter many serious ailments, they did see conditions that if left untreated could become life threatening especially to young children.

In one case, "Dr. Nelson pulled out a dead fly out of an infant’s ear that had been in there for some time causing a severe ear infection," said Kim. "In the United States, something like this would have been taken care of immediately and the baby would never have had to suffer for so long. But unfortunately, medical care is not readily available here."

Two dentists on the team also treated approximately 15 patients and extracted several teeth. "At first, people were very reluctant to see the dentist. Around here, dentist pull teeth without anesthesia and the experience are very traumatic for the patients," said Kim. "But once word got out that our dentists were using anesthesia and that it wasn’t painful, we saw more patients come in for extractions."

According to Kim, the types of patients and ailments they saw at Chabelley, Dammerjog were similar to those in Goubetto. In every location, the medical team advised their patients about the importance of proper hygiene and the relationship between cleanliness and good health, through military and civilian interpreters who spoke a local Somali dialect and French.

According to Philippi, Djibouti health officials have reported seeing improvements in the overall health of the population; improvements Philippi attributes partly to US efforts in the area. The Civil Military Operations projects are making a positive impact in the area and are fostering positive relationships with the people of Djibouti. They are also demonstrating the U.S. government’s commitment to helping local residents and improving their infrastructure, said Philippi.

The Djiboutian people were not the only ones to benefit from these projects, said Philippi. The joint missions were a great opportunity for members of the different branches of the military to work together and learn from each other.

"We learned how local doctors treat infectious diseases and the different cases of infections they see at different times of the year," said Kim. "This helps us for planning purposes. In future medical aid missions, we’ll know what medications to bring and how to treat the local diseases," he said. "We’ll be better prepared and less people will suffer."