Help for the helpers

Healthcare systems in Africa are facing a huge threat in their fight against AIDS - an increasing shortfall of nursing staff. Workers are either infected themselves or can no longer cope with the daily fight against the disease. Despite this, there is hope - the first wellness centre for healthcare workers, which provides medical and psychological help to nursing staff and their families, was opened recently in Swaziland.

More than 40% of the 1.8 million inhabitants of the South African state, the continent’s smallest, are now affected by HIV and AIDS, among them many nursing staff. It is becoming daily more difficult for the diminishing number of healthcare workers to fight the virus; often, the only solution for skilled staff is emigration to a country with lower rates of infection.

The medical infrastructure is on the brink of collapse. The Swaziland Nurses Association (SNA) recently opened a centre in Manzini, the largest city in Swaziland, to counter this worrying development. The International Council of Nurses (ICN), medical products manufacturer Beckton Dickinson and the Stephen Lewis Foundation all helped to set up a centre dedicated to the care of healthcare workers.

Apart from looking after patients and their families, the centre offers health workers prenatal advice, tests and the opportunity of medical observation for needle prick injuries. An integrated training centre imparts medical knowledge and provides training for dealing with stressful situations and violence encountered at work.

Linda Carrier-Walker, director of external relations and communications at the International Council of Nurses said: ‘The training is particularly important because many nurses are completely demoralised. They have to fight a disease about which they don’t know enough. This is why we teach them how to treat HIV as well as ancillary infections such as tuberculosis.’

Healthcare workers’ feedback since the opening of the centre in September has been cautious. Linda Carrier-Walker explains that this is due to those affected being too scared to be open about their illness and their fears. Even though almost half of the country’s population is either infected with HIV or already suffering from AIDS, having the disease is still considered a stigma.

However, the centre’s founders are convinced that their work will soon be better received and become successful through word of mouth. Its 2006 objective is to provide help for up to 3,000 nursing staff; numbers are expected to increase to 8,000 next year.

John Hanson, executive vice-president of Beckton Dickinson, said: ‘We have taken a step in the right direction in Swaziland, but are scraping only at the tip of the iceberg. If we look at Botswana, where most people don’t live beyond 33 because of AIDS, it becomes clear how desperately we need more projects such as this.’

However, a start has been made, and the first step is always the hardest. Further centres are planned for Lesotho and Zambia in 2007 and for Malawi in 2008. Providing help for the helpers also helps everybody else around them.


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