The Lifeboat

Along the Napo River, healthcare floats by once a month

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 population of the whole region, plagued by poverty and malnutrition, is highly affected by several diseases: malaria, dengue, birth malformations, intestinal infections, tuberculosis, as well as frequent traumatic events, from gunshot wounds to the accidental fall off a tree.

The government is trying to meet the healthcare needs of the Napo population with the ambitious project of a floating hospital, on which a team of doctors – paid by the Health ministry – permanently travels between Iquitos and the border with Ecuador in 45-days voyages, bringing from village to village the assistance that the communities would otherwise never get. The hospital boat has been built, and given to the Health ministry, by the Peruvian Navy, which modified a big barge previously used by drug traffickers and seized by the police. On board there is a small hospital complete with delivery room, surgery room, an analysis lab and rooms for hospitalization. The experiment was launched in June, 2013, and was so successful that the ship will continue its navigation up and down the Napo until 2021, while bordering countries such as Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia are planning to reproduce the initiative for their own Amazonian communities.

The boat is not only a floating hospital, but also (something that the U.S. Embassy in Peru has called “unique in the world”) an actual miniature branch of the government, which carries an office of the National Bank as well as workers of the Registry Office and two social assistants with the ministry of Women with the task of sensitizing the local people on gender-related issues.

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