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Public health ministry serves rural Ghana

NALERIGU, Ghana (BP)–Missionary Cherry Faile smiles when she hears villagers singing songs in the Manpruli language about how to properly nurse children or cook nutritious meals.

In a place where accurate statistics are tough to track, the songs affirm that the public health programs she helped develop at the Baptist Medical Centre in rural Ghana are working.

“You’d hear them singing those songs everywhere,” said Faile, daughter of the doctor who helped found the hospital 50 years ago. “You’d be surprised how quickly those messages spread and become part of the thinking in the community.”

That’s just one example of the unique public health programs the hospital uses to educate and minister to the masses, most of whom still live in mud huts and have little formal education.

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As Faile began putting up a public health building years ago, she realized, “I really wanted [it] to belong to the people so they would feel comfortable coming here.”

So she invited village chiefs to send villagers to help with construction. Together, they built the traditional huts used as exam rooms and administrative offices.

Since then people have been coming from miles around to weigh their babies, get AIDS tests, prenatal care and more.

But reaching beyond the walls of the hospital is just as important.

Public health workers make rounds on motorbikes three times a week, traveling on dusty, dirt roads to villages as much as two hours away. They carry all the vaccinations, basic first aid and prenatal care kits they can manage.

The workers also hit the road to train traditional midwives and give health talks at schools on subjects ranging from typhoid to HIV.

Ghana’s HIV rate is about 3 percent. That’s not nearly as high as other African countries; however, traditional practices including polygamy and unhygienic male circumcision rituals remain a problem. While public health information is helping change those behaviors, between 30 and 40 patients at the medical center tested positive for HIV in the first six months of 2008.

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Public health nurse Florence Wuni must sometimes break the bad news to patients but often also shares God’s message of hope.

“Some will weep,” said Wuni, a Nalerigu native. “Some will deny it and say our test was wrong. But I tell them to have faith in God and follow their treatments, and they will be OK.”

Besides the motorcycle outreach, the hospital offers two other special health programs.

A rustic pavilion beside the hospital provides a place for mothers to nurse their malnourished children back to health.

Every morning the mothers sweep camp, attend devotionals and learn how to prepare healthy meals using local foods. Each afternoon, with babies strapped securely to their backs, the women prepare the food in giant cast-iron pots.

“They come every day until their children reach a healthy weight,” Faile said. “They may stay six weeks.”

About a half-mile away, a secluded village offers a refuge where patients suffering from tuberculosis can stay with their families while they recover.

Patients with coughs or strange spinal growths often are devastated when they’re told they must complete a tuberculosis treatment lasting six to nine months. But the hospital has an 85 percent survival rate for tuberculosis patients. In other parts of Africa, 75 percent of tuberculosis patients die.

The village, called Alafia Tinga, or “Village of Good Health,” has a unique caretaker. John Koffi Boateng was treated for tuberculosis at the village more than 25 years ago. He married another patient and, thanks to daily devotionals led by hospital staff, “I was truly born again.”

He decided to stay in the village where few others were willing to work. He ministers to his neighbors daily.

“It is not just the medicine that heals here,” he tells them. “It is Christ.”
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Emily Peters is a regional writer covering West Africa for the International Mission Board.