This month marks the second time that the Port of Dakar will welcome a Mercy Ship to its shore. This time it is the Africa Mercy – the largest charity-run hospital ship in the world, delivering free, safe surgical care. This floating hospital is staffed by over 400 volunteers, who give their expertise for free to help treat dental and eye problems, cleft lips and palates, tumours, club feet, childbirth injuries, burns and a variety of other conditions.

But, before the Africa Mercy is nudged gently into position by several Port of Dakar tugboats to take up her moorings for the next ten months, several years of work has already been done. This work starts with signing a Protocol Agreement approximately two years before a Mercy Ship arrives and will only come to an end approximately two years after a ship has left.

Mercy Ships partners with nations for around five years at a time. So, in any one year we are actually working with up to five nations. At the moment we are working with our partners Cameroon, Guinea, Senegal, Liberia and Sierra Leone. Mercy Ships is always invited by our host nation’s government and we work closely with the Ministry of Health and other local government departments of our host nation to ensure that we are providing the most effective aid possible.

Mercy Ships provides assistance in four ways:

  • We deliver free surgical and dental services to the poor in the countries that we serve.
  • We strengthen our host nation’s surgical health care system through training, infrastructure and mentoring.
  • We conduct research and evaluation to improve the impact of our activities and to share knowledge with the wider health care community.
  • We advocate for safe, timely and affordable surgery for the underserved in the nations of Africa.

So, what will our field service in Senegal look like?

Although Senegal has a solid health care system in place, there is still a need for capacity building and surgeries especially in the rural areas where approximately half of Senegal’s population (around 8.8 million people) lives and access to health care is limited.

During the Africa Mercy’s 10-month stay in the port of Dakar, Mercy Ships plans to provide 1,200 to 1,700 life-changing surgeries on board, to treat over 4,000 at a land-based dental clinic as well as providing health care training to local medical professionals.All of this will be provided at no cost to the recipients and will help to improve the health care provision in Senegal long after the ship leaves port.

The Africa Mercy is a large ship, but not everything Mercy Ships does takes place on board. For example, the Mercy Ships dental clinic is land-based. Our dental team usually see the largest number of patients during a field service, partly because dental procedures do not take as long as surgical ones. Before the Africa Mercy even set off for Dakar, a location had been selected and refurbished as a first-class dental clinic. This clinic will be used by Mercy Ships during the field service and then returned to the local health care system with all its new equipment. The new facility will also be used for training.

In addition to our dental clinic, we have established a land-based Hospital Out-Patient Extension (HOPE) Centre. Once again the building is identified well before the Africa Mercy arrives and it is also refurbished by Mercy Ships. The HOPE Centre is a crucial part of our work, offering a safe, secure, hygienic environment where patients come before their operations on the ship and afterwards to convalesce. Without the HOPE Centre patients who travel from outside Dakar would have nowhere to stay.

It is like a home away from home for our patients and a sense of community is formed among those who work and recover there. Many of them have been shunned and ostracised in their villages. But when they come to the HOPE Centre they realise that they are not the only ones with bent legs, cleft lips, or large disfiguring tumours.Staffed by a combination of volunteers and locally hired workers, the HOPE Centre provides the same level of care and compassion that the patients’experience on the Africa Mercy.

Mercy Ships also runs an off-ship agricultural training program. Our agricultural specialists will be involved with training local partners, who will in turn train farmers in aspects of sustainable, organic farming techniques to increase nutrition, thus improving general health.

So, how will we select our patients in Senegal?

The President of Senegal and the Minister of Health and Social Action have requested that Mercy Ships focus on the needs of patients both in the capital and interior regions of Senegal. This means that 75% of our patients will come from the thirteen interior regions of Senegal.

To ensure that we reach as many people as possible, Mercy Ships has developed a unique in-house mobile phone app. Testing and then rolling the technology out occurred during our 2017 -2018 field service in Cameroon and the app has since been used in Guinea and now it is being used in Senegal as well.

Prospective patients can now be identified well before the arrival of the Africa Mercy to a host nation. Demographic information, medical history and photographs are captured and sent to the ship’s volunteer experts (for review then referral to a second, final screening). Using mobile technology, Mercy Ships selection experts approve patients for a field consultation by a Mercy Ships medical team.

So, as the Africa Mercy ties up, our volunteer crew are prepared for the next ten months of hard work as they ensure that Mercy Ships transform as many lives as possible. At times the task ahead of us may seem vast. Globally, five billion people live without access to safe, affordable surgery when they need it. And, sometimes we are asked, “How can you possibly change the situation? There are too many people.” Well, the answer to that is simple, as our longest-serving volunteer surgeon, Dr Gary Parker, said: “We can change it one life at a time.”