Jungle Fever

Into the daily life of a true frontier hospital

Those who live along the Napo river – a tributary of the Amazon river in Peruvian territory – pray for one thing: never to get sick. For the more than 50,000 persons who live in almost completely isolated communities along the 667-km-long Peruvian stretch of the river, even the simplest disease can become a catastrophe: Iquitos, the nearest town with a hospital, is often impossible to reach for those who move on a pyrogue. And for many, the scarce public transport on the river is simply too expensive. Moreover, Iquitos happens to be the largest town in the world with no road access (it can only be reached by boat or airplane), a fact that has a dramatic repercussion on the standard of its health care structures. The whole region, because of poverty and malnutrition, is affected by every kind of disease: malaria, dengue, birth malformations, intestinal infections, tuberculosis and various traumatic events, from gunshot wounds to the accidental fall off a tree.

The health care issues along the Napo river are met by a small clinic called Santa Clotilde Centro de Salud, where converge most of the sick, the wounded and the pregnant women of the Napo, often travelling for days on a precarious pyrogue. Literally lost in the heart of the rainforest, managed by a small team of Peruvian doctors paid by the government, the center (which is not even classified as a hospital) has the looks of a hospital in a war zone: its two very spartan pavillions are in a permanent emergency, materials are scarce, the structure is surrounded by a hostile environment and it works mostly thanks to the personnel’s extraordinary dedication and creativity. For the most serious cases, the center has a small and powerful ambulance boat, with which the patients are rushed to Iquitos (some 300 kms to the south, a 6-hours trip). When necessary, the boat travels in all weather conditions, day and night, even during the violent Amazonian rainstorms, and it is piloted by an old and expert man, who got sick with malaria 14 times and is alive thanks to Santa Clotilde’s doctors.