Fieldset
"We are here to save lives": health promotion in Nigerian IDP camps

Every minute, 20 people are forcibly displaced as a result of conflict or persecution, fleeing their homes and villages for the safety of camps. However, they are not out of harm's way once in these camps, where unsanitary conditions and unsafe practices pose a serious risk to their health. That's where health promoter supervisor John and his team come in...

Conditions in a camp for people displaced by armed conflict in Benue state, Nigeria

Since January 2018, thousands of internally displaced people (IDPs) have been living in various camps set up by the local authorities in Benue State, in the centre of Nigeria.

Many families are fleeing their villages due to violent clashes between local farmers and nomadic herders.

Since 2018, MSF has been providing basic healthcare services and water and sanitation in several of these camps.

We are here to save lives, alleviate suffering and help the medical department to prepare for any emergency

As a health promoter supervisor, I have eight health promotors (HPs) working under my supervision in two of the camps.

Health promotion is essential and a priority in our project.

Changing attitudes

Many people we support in the camps have no access to toilets, drinking water or health facilities in the villages where they come from.

As a result, many have misconceptions about common diseases and practice self-medication because they do not always see the importance of going to the health centre when they get sick.

Understanding the communities we work with helps us to define and design our daily activities, and to succeed in providing adequate health promotion support.

MSF health promoter supervisor John Asema (centre) and his team in Benue State

MSF health promoter supervisor John Asema (centre) and his team in Benue State
MSF health promoter supervisor John Asema (centre) and his team in Benue State

I often tell my team that as health promotors, we will be “thinking, writing and working on our feet”.

We are the link between our health centres and the people we support in the camps.

A voice for the people

Inside the camps, we collect information regarding people arriving or leaving to help us better understand the context, as well as the population’s needs and habits.

We are also constantly providing information about the services MSF provides and gathering feedback from people about these, which is useful to gauge the quality of our medical response.

We carry out weekly disease surveillance for measles, cholera, meningitis and other diseases, follow up on patient referrals, carry out rapid nutritional assessments, and keep track of severe malnutrition cases in ambulatory therapeutic feeding centres until patients are discharged.

Any health issue we come across is very important to us because we are here to save lives, alleviate suffering and help the medical department to prepare for any emergency.

The importance of ongoing education

In addition, our health education sessions are combined with practical demonstrations on, for example, handwashing, the use of mosquito nets and open defecation, which remains an issue in the area.

We often hear stories about people using unsafe water or delaying their visit to the health centre because they choose to seek help from their “herbalist” first or are too busy working on their farms to provide food for their relatives.

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MSF health promoter supervisor John Asema presents to children in a camp for internally displaced people in Benue state
MSF health promoter supervisor John Asema presents to children in a camp for internally displaced people in Benue state

As a result, we have to keep educating people on the importance of using latrines, showers and clean water to avoid common diseases, and going to the health facility when they are sick to prevent medical complications.

Without health promotion, people would not use the facilities that are available in the camps.

Responding to a medical emergency

One day, we came across a situation in one of the camps that made me once more appreciate the work we do as MSF.

During our surveillance, we met with nearly 40 people who were presenting bad medical conditions. After discussing with them, they explained they had all received informal care at a local school, instead of in a medical facility.  We directly informed our medical team about these persons. 

We immediately informed our medical team about these patients.

Those in a critical condition were admitted to the public state hospital, while we attended to the others at MSF’s primary healthcare clinic in the camp.

One person did not survive but all others recovered and are now doing well.

This situation really made me sad. It was the worst to lose a patient.

However, this was also one of my happiest moments – to see patients making a full recovery and showing their gratitude for the support we provided. 

A transformation

Through our efforts, we see behavioural changes from unhygienic practices to a healthy lifestyle in camps where we work.

It also motivates me when I hear people say, “I have learned new practices and will share them with others”.

I am happy to be a part of this change, which is only possible with the support of my team in Benue.

We are all contributing.

I look forward to doing more and hopefully someday in a different context as an international staff member.

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