On the Ground: Mercy Ships

Sarah Speight

Scheme: Medical operations for women in Sierra Leone

Funding: Approximately 2 per cent of charity's total income, which comes mostly from donations. Crew and volunteers raise own expenses

Objectives: To bring medical care, education and development to poor countries

A charity hospital ship that has been treating women in West Africa has docked in the UK this week to report the findings of its work to the public.

The Mercy Ship Anastasis sails to some of the poorest nations in the world to offer medical and long-term development help.

Most recently, the ship has been working with women in Sierra Leone with Vesico-vaginal fistula (VVF), which is an abnormal hole between the bladder and the vagina.

The condition is caused by obstructed or prolonged labour during pregnancy, resulting in internal tearing and renders women incontinent. In Africa, labour often lasts for several days - in the west, this would be avoided by performing a Caesarean section.

The consequent wetness and odour caused by VVF causes the sufferer to be shunned by her family and outcast from society.

According to the UN Population Fund's Campaign to End Fistula, between 50,000 and 100,000 women are affected each year, yet more than 2 million sufferers remain untreated in developing countries. However, the true number of women living with VVF is unknown, as many don't know the name or cause of their affliction, and are thus isolated from help and support.

In order to help these women, Mercy Ships sent advance teams to Sierra Leone before the Anastasis arrived. Volunteers established local connections by displaying posters, and utilising radio stations and other internal networks, to advertise the ship's medical service .

The Anastasis then carried out 90 VVF surgeries in Sierra Leone during its seven-month stay, providing women with free operations to repair their fistulas.

The international charity, which has a fleet of three ships, also provides cataract, orthopaedic and cleft-lip and palate operations to more than 40 nations. Mercy Ships also provides local education and carries out agricultural development work. It aims to serve 1 million people per year.

Surgeon Lord Ian McColl helped pioneer the VVF surgeries in Sierra Leone in 1991. "What we are doing may seem like a drop in the ocean," he said. "But as we train more doctors and work with hospitals to raise basic levels of healthcare, more women will have some kind of hope, where previously they had none."

The Anastasis will be docked in Birkenhead West Float, Liverpool, until 5 July, and will be open for public tours.

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