Partners for the Long Haul

If you want to go fast go alone; if you want to go far, go together. This African proverb implores us to unite and stick together to reach a goal, in this case, extending basic health care to people on the move.

There isn’t anything groundbreaking about providing health services from a shipping container. Certainly no one would be surprised to learn that people on the move for a living find it difficult to get treatment if they fall ill. It’s not rocket science, just good public health practice, to offer services that respond to a dire need, in a place that is convenient and in a welcoming way.

For North Star Alliance, a public-private partnership driven by the transport industry, each new roadside clinic is a step closer to the goal. The Roadside ‘Wellness Centres’ – named to emphasize healthy living – connect people to basic health services and vice versa, from Mombasa to the Uganda border. The wellness centres are designed to meet the needs of long-haul truck drivers while on the job. Clinical officers, trained by the Ministry of Health, offer treatment for common health problems and sexually transmitted infections, HIV prevention, counselling and testing, treatment for malaria, TB screening and referrals to district health services.

So why is it big news when four new Roadside Wellness Centres are linked up to the existing network? I think it’s because those involved in making it happen regard it as a testament to the commitment, clarity of purpose and goodwill among a constellation of partners who, in many cases, never before worked together. It takes a lot of trust and a great deal of patience to create something this big.

Today is important for two reasons. First, because the communities of Maai Mahiu, Namanga, Emali and Burnt Forest are being recognized as the locations of the newest North Star Alliance Roadside Wellness Centres through the generous support of the Embassy of Japan in Kenya. It is without a doubt, and with no understatement, that many thousands of people will benefit from these facilities.

The second reason that today is important is that it provides an opportunity to highlight the power of cross-sector partnerships. How, along with the Embassy of Japan, other partners worked at the ‘crossroads’ to bring these wellness centres to life. Crossroads isn’t just a literal reference to where the centres are situated. It describes the meeting of the minds, and the hearts, of a diverse group of people and organizations, coming from different places.

Under the leadership of the Ministry of Public Health and Sanitation, a new mix of players mobilized resources to deliver health services where there were none. Some may view the partners as odd bedfellows, but they transcended differences and stereotypes to form a more perfect union with a vision to extend universal access to prevention, care and treatment to those who frequently miss out.

At the North Star intersection sits business owners and humanitarians, diplomats and truck drivers, religious leaders and sex workers, UN agencies, workers’ unions, and people living with HIV. The strategic liaisons that are woven are both its strength and its Achilles heel. At any point, one or the other can decide to break and run, to go a different way or turn back, and sometimes it’s gridlock. Much like Westlands at rush hour. Time will tell if this group of partners is going for distance.

I started by saying that containerized health services are not innovations in and of themselves. In fact, there are other excellent examples of programmes and projects in Kenya using containers to extend essential health care to migrants, displaced populations and others on the move. And they are to be recognized, commended and supported.

What is innovative about this particular model is that all Roadside Wellness Centres are connected by an IT system that allows North Star to monitor performance and respond promptly to any problems with drug supplies, equipment or staffing. Individuals register and receive a confidential personal identification number to access their health records anywhere in the network. The anonymised data generated from the centres are regularly shared with the District Health Management Teams.

Last year, the North Star network provided prevention, counselling, and treatment to over 175,000 truck drivers, sex workers and community members. More than 152,000 condoms were distributed and almost 26,000 HIV tests were done. Today, there are 22 wellness centres operating in 10 countries with others in the pipeline.

North Star Alliance was established in 2006 and is supported by the International Transport Workers’ Federation, ORTEC, TNT, UNAIDS, the World Food Programme and over 60 local partners. North Star has regional offices in Kenya, South Africa and Burkina Faso and a head office in The Netherlands.

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