The clinic may only be six months old and located in a classroom in Colégio de Santo Inácio de Loiola (CSIL) in Kasait, but already it has begun community outreach services to nine villages in the broader Ulmera area. The focus has been on raising awareness of hygiene, safe drinking water, sanitation, nutrition and communicable diseases, and organising dental, eye and general medical checks.
The nurse responsible for the clinic is Sister Eliza Fernandes of the Religious of Jesus and Mary (RJM). The RJM sisters from India are collaborating with the Jesuits on the education project, with sisters running the clinic and working in the school.
Sr Fernandes arrived in Timor-Leste in August last year, and spent some months learning Tetum, visiting families with the staff of Jesuit Social Service to understand the situation, and meeting with local community leaders and the government health centre, before opening the clinic in June and beginning a more structured outreach programme together with Jesuit Social Service.
The conditions in Ulmera are typical of the majority of Timor-Leste’s population. According to the World Health Organization, 70 percent of the people “live in small, dispersed villages isolated by mountainous terrain and poor road conditions”. For the people in Ulmera, the nearest hospital is in the national capital, Dili, about 45 to 90 minutes away by car, precious time for someone needing emergency care.
There are also no X-ray or laboratory facilities, and no pharmacy, said Sr Fernandes. In addition, lack of awareness challenges health in Ulmera, where common illnesses include diarrhoea, tuberculosis, malaria, dengue fever, parasites and under-nourishment.
Seasonal changes also cause health issues, with the dust and heat of the dry season (May to November) causing respiratory problems or exacerbating illness; and the heavy rains of the wet season (December to April) causing dengue, landslides, and injuries.
“The literacy rate of Liquica district is also very low,” said Sr Fernandes, who served in a dispensary in a remote village in India before going to Timor-Leste in 2014. “Most of the adults in Ulmera are illiterate and lack the knowledge of healthy living. Mass media communication is inaccessible due to poor access to electricity in the area so people have a poor awareness of health issues. This ignorance leads to the increase and spread of diseases.”
Even without the outreach programme, the clinic is already meeting a need in the school. Daily, Sr Fernandes has students, many of them from poor families, coming to her with aches and pains, fevers, upset stomachs, ear pain, dizziness, asthma and injuries.
“Because of the lack of basic necessities for proper nourishment, sanitation and healthcare, quite a number of them are often sick and are easily tired,” said Sr Fernandes.
Construction of the clinic, to be named the Daniel Ornelas Health Center (DOHC), is in progress and anticipated to be completed by the middle of 2016. Located on the grounds of the Jesuit education project, the intent is for it to provide public healthcare services not just for students and staff, but also for the broader Ulmera community.
Looking to the future, Sr Fernandes aims to provide health education to schools and communities in Ulmera through seminars, promotional materials, audio-visual productions, and to supplement government services with regular mobile health clinic visits to remote areas.
Related story: RJM collaborators in Timor-Leste