Ambulance Boat Ferries Patients to Care
Ban Puta, a hamlet on the Thailand side of the border with Myanmar, is nestled on a small hill overlooking paddy fields and dense jungle foliage. Most people who live here have fled conflict and economic collapse in Myanmar for a more peaceful life in Thailand. But while life here is better than in Myanmar, it is far from perfect. Ban Puta is impoverished, isolated and far from health facilities, schools and other services.
Until recently, villagers had to make a day’s journey to reach the nearest health post. But now, thanks to SHIELD, an innovative IRC-run program which helps Burmese refugees and migrants access education and healthcare, the village’s 300 inhabitants can easily get to a clinic by way of the Salawin, a winding river on the Thailand-Myanmar border. Anchored by the river bank, an hour’s walk from Ban Puta, a SHIELD-provided speed boat is on call 24-hours a day to ferry patients to nearby clinics or the hospital in the town of Mae Sarieng.
“We feel more secure now,” said Chanjira Srisopabongkot, a villager whose young sons recently contracted pneumonia, a potentially lethal disease if left untreated in small children. “My boys were very sick and nobody could cure them in the village. My husband and I carried the children to the river and we arrived at the hospital three hours later.”
Another villager, Le Paw, said that people previously waited by the river bank in the hope that a passing boat might transport them to a health facility. It would sometimes take hours before a vessel that wasn’t already fully loaded came by.
“Walking is not possible either,” Le Paw said. “In the rainy season it can take days to reach the clinics by walking through the forest. The boat is a vital link to the rural clinic or the hospital.”
The nearest health clinic to Ban Puta is in the village of Su Bei Ta, an hour’s journey by boat upriver where the Salawin joins the muddy Moei River. Su Bei Ta, a stone’s throw from the riverbank, is less than 100 meters from the opposite shore belonging to Myanmar, also known as Burma.
At the clinic, Chalark Thain Kaen, one of over 500 community health volunteers supported through SHIELD money and training, is preparing to leave for his home village, six hours’ walk through thick forest. Having joined a training session on hygiene promotion at the clinic, he is now ready to spread the message in his community. His job, he said, is to inform people in isolated jungle hamlets what they can do to prevent common diseases like malaria.
“I tell people to sleep under nets and to wear long sleeves,” Kaen said. “I also tell people that it is important to light fires at night to scare away the mosquitoes.”
Another important task of the health volunteers is to inform mothers of young children that if their children become sick they must immediately travel to a health post.
“Many people rely on traditional medicine, like forest herbs, for treatment,” Kaen said. “I tell them that such methods don’t always work and that it is better to get treatment from professional nurses. I think we are helping people to stay healthy.”
According to the IRC’s Dr. Nyunt Naing, who runs SHIELD’s health programs, more than 50,000 people – including those living along the Salawin River – receive medical treatment and vital health education through SHIELD. An additional 350,000 people benefit from other SHIELD health services, such as help with interpretation at hospitals.
“A lot of these people, especially those living in remote areas, have very limited options if they get sick,” Dr. Naing said. “Life for Burmese migrants and refugees in Thailand is very hard already. With SHIELD, we are changing things for the better.”