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Mauritania: understanding rural communities and palliative care

Author: Dr David Fearon, Cairdeas Sahara
19 July 2017
  • Participants in the first training show off their certificates

Dr David Fearon who leads Cairdeas Sahara writes about an innovative and creative project in Mauritania which extends palliative care with an emphasis on community understanding, rural development and poverty alleviation.

I am delighted to report the completion of a 12 month capacity building project in Mauritania. These activities were sponsored by Johnson & Johnson and managed by the Tropical Health and Education Trust (THET).

The highlight for me was the multidisciplinary and international collaboration. Visitors represented France, Senegal, Switzerland, Uganda, UK and Sudan.

It was especially nice to be able to host the country’s first palliative care training in Arabic during the visit by Dr Nahla Gafer and Dr Mohja Khair, Cairdeas friends from Sudan.

I was relieved that their dialect of Arabic was easily understood, and it was wonderful how they identified so many similarities between these two countries of the Sahel, both in the environment and culture. I think they were jealous of our wonderful beaches!

Overall we trained 75 health care workers from all over the country in the foundations of palliative care, and we visited nine of these participants for mentoring in their rural work setting.

To give an example, one nurse said: “I was caring for an elderly man with cardiac failure. He had multiple pressure sores and dirty sheets. He was depressed. I dressed the pressure sores and showed the family how to do the same, in employing what he learnt during the training.

“I could see how I made a positive change in this man’s life and that of his family. The patient remained well until his death. I never say ‘there is nothing more that can be done’ anymore.” 

At the moment, I am working with a French anthropologist on writing up the research which ran alongside the project.

Unfortunately this means reading and rereading through the French transcripts of nine focus group meetings and 31 individual interviews.

Eventually, we plan to publish two articles from this research. The first will be an anthropological reflection on the training and the effects of the training, and the second a discussion on the cultural ideas of death, dying and end of life care.

I am already finding some good insights into how the concept of palliative care is viewed locally. For example, the definition of palliative care is centred around the idea of ‘life-limiting illness’. However this is a new concept for many Mauritanians, including health care workers.

As one imam said, “It is not the illness which causes death, and it is not health which causes life.” In Mauritania, people believe that it is only God who is in control of life, health and death.

A doctor or nurse who talks of an incurable disease may be considered as putting themselves in the position of God, or they may just not be aware of the available cure.

Another aspect is that life is thought of as fragile and that most people have experienced suddenly losing a healthy member of their family, even while a severely ill family member makes a full recovery.

Whilst we may think that these beliefs may lead to a fatalistic acceptance, in practice people feel a great burden to pursue any possible cure, whether through modern health care or traditional.

At times this leads the family into debt as they continue their search for a cure.

This international training shows how we can partner to make a real difference. Many thanks to all our Mauritanian and international partners and to Johnson & Johnson and THET for their grant.

This article appeared on the Cairdeas Blog. You can read more about the project here.

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