In the regions of North-West and South-West Cameroon, a little-known humanitarian crisis has been evolving. Escalating violence between English-speaking separatists and central government forces has forced 530,000 people to flee their homes since 2016 – and many are in need of emergency assistance. Australian pharmacist Rachel Sun worked with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Bamenda in the North-West and Buea in the South-West at the end of 2018.
Thinking back over my two months in Cameroon, one patient stands out in my mind. She was a woman – a widower – with nine children. The team met her when MSF was providing medical care in a very isolated area for people who had been displaced by the violence.
This woman and her children were sleeping in the bush at night and would return to their house during the day. When asked when they would go back to living in their house, the woman replied: “I can stop sleeping in the bush if there are no more gunshots in the night.”
Everyone who the team spoke with were struggling to find food and get medical treatment, and they all had children under their care. Many of these people had been forced to hide in the bush to escape the violence, and, like the woman and her nine children, had been left with little access to healthcare.
“The woman replied, ‘I can stop sleeping in the bush if there are no more gunshots in the night.’”
Delivering care MSF’s main aim in this context is to reach these people in rural and remote areas. MSF has trained more than 140 members of the community (the majority being nurses) to diagnose and treat simple cases of conditions like malaria and acute watery diarrhoea, which commonly affect people in the region. They provide first aid care, and complicated cases are referred to identified health structures. For example, pregnant women and young children, who are particularly vulnerable and in need of healthcare in these areas, are referred when they need urgent care.
Our teams also set up an ambulance referral system to facilitate patient referrals from the community to health centres, and to hospital when needed. Six ambulances are active 24/7 throughout the region.
MSF teams are also working in three hospitals and are supporting 21 healthcare facilities across the North-West Region and South-West Region, providing training for medical staff, providing drugs and covering medical costs for emergency cases. Mass casualty plans were set up in several health facilities, preparing teams to respond to a massive influx of wounded people.
Rewarding pharmacy work
As the pharmacist in Bamenda, my role focused around receiving, organising and looking after the international medical order, flown into Cameroon from the MSF warehouses – this amounted to over four tonnes of supplies during my eight weeks!
I also coordinated the delivery of medical items to the hospitals we were supporting, as well as packing supplies for our outreach teams. These supplies included medical kits of medical equipment, essential drugs and treatment protocols, as well as other materials like buckets, soap and bins.
“We were able to deliver essential medicines and healthcare to people who had been forced to flee from their homes, had often survived or witnessed violence, and who desperately needed access to treatment.”
Though the context in the region was extremely difficult, particularly in terms of security, the work was rewarding. We were able to deliver essential medicines and healthcare to people who had been forced to flee from their homes, had often survived or witnessed violence, and who desperately needed access to treatment for injuries inflicted by violence, obstetric complications or malaria.
The best part of my job was not only the relief we were able to provide to people suffering, but also the wonderful team I was working with.
I met amazingly resilient and motivated people, both Cameroonian and international staff, who are working hard in these difficult conditions to support the people who are most affected by the crisis in this region.