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23 Jul, 2010 03:26

Floating clinic saves lives in rural India

During the rainy season, rural Indian states find themselves cut off from the mainland and basic services like medical care. That’s when a team of doctors from a clinic boat are most welcome guests in remote villages.

The state of Assam in northeast India sits on the banks of the mighty Brahmaputra River, and during the monsoon the water way is the only means of transport. Healthcare arrives by boat for those living in remote villages and still it can take 3 or 4 days to reach some of the islands.

“There are many villages we can go to only in the rainy season,” said Dr. Rahool Amin Haque from the Center for North East Studies and Policy Research. “It's more difficult to get to them during the dry season. We have to walk 5 to 7 kilometers. This could take 2 hours. We can't carry all our medical equipment such a long distance.”

One hundred thousand people live in the district of Nalbari, but there is only one functioning medical center. Sixteen-year old Mopuda is pregnant, and feels this free check-up is a far better option than traveling to the nearest town.

“It's good the boat clinic is here, otherwise I would have had to travel to the town for my check-up. It takes several hours just to reach there,” Mopuda said.

The boat clinic is run by an NGO, the Center for North East Studies. It's funded by the Indian government and UNICEF. Its main focus is the immunization of children. While locals were initially hesitant to get their babies vaccinated, mothers like Abida now actively support it.

“My child often gets a fever,” she said. “That's why I brought him here. I hope this shot will help him.”

But there are limits to what the doctors can do. Dr. Haque examined local farmer Jalaluddin, who had been complaining of pain in his abdomen. To diagnose the cause, Dr. Haque needed an X-ray, but for that Jalaluddin had to go to the city – a trip the farmer could not afford, he said.

“We can deliver babies, and do blood tests,” Dr. Haque explained. “But we don't have an X-ray machine, so for that the patient has to go to the medical center in the city. If there is an emergency, we have a standby boat we can use to transport the patient there.”

Getting access to healthcare in rural Assam is never easy, and even more difficult during the monsoon, when the Brahmaputra River covers much of the land. But by delivering healthcare to the doorstep of the villagers, the boat clinic could mean the difference between life and death.