Floating hospital boon for Bangla poor

Agence France Presse

Dhaka, April 16:

Criss-crossing the rivers of Bangladesh with a medical ward, an X-ray machine and specialist doctors, a hospital is reaching out to the poorest of the poor who greet the boat as an angel on the water. "I have no words to tell you what the floating hospital is doing," said Abdur Razzak, a villager in northern Gaibandha district where the hospital anchored on the Jamuna river. “It is like an angel to us," said another villager.’ At least 200 patients line up each day to see the hospital’s two doctors, who are ready with a six-bed ward, an X-ray machine and facilities for obstetric and gynecological treatment.

The 45-metre (145-foot) hospital has treated some 72,000 people free of charge. According to organisers, the hospital has anchored at 11 places since 2001 when it started moving around rivertine Bangladesh. "I went to the main town for a cataract operation for my eyes and doctors asked for 1,000 taka ($17.24)," said Ishak Mondal, a 60-year-old farmer.

"Now I’m getting it done free."

The white and red boat was donated by the Hospital Association of France and in 1995 was symbolically inaugurated by Mother Teresa, the late Nobel laureate who dedicated her entire life to helping the poor of nearby Kolkata city in India. It was set up in hopes of reaching the isolated poor who would ordinarily never see a hospital and often have lost their land on small river islands due to erosion on the banks.

"The people are so poor in those remote areas that in one of the cases a baby died of diarrhoea after the parents could not pay a mere three taka (less than a cent) as boat fare," said Runa Khan Marre, the executive director of the hospital. "One of our main objectives is to provide primary health care service and hygiene education to these villagers," she told AFP. Medical treatment outside the major cities is a major problem in Bangladesh, which a country of 130 million where there is just one single doctor for every 4,251 people, according to official figures. According to a United Nations study conducted last year, Bangladesh ranked 139 out of 175 countries in access to doctors.

The floating hospital, run by the non-governmental Friendship Association of Bangladesh, relies on doctors, often specialists, who volunteer for two-week stints. Its 8.5 million-taka ($148,000) annual budget is funded by donations. The major donators to the hospital is particularly the Lever Brothers, the subsidiary of Anglo-Dutch food and household products giant Unilever.

The boat is known as the Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital after Lifebuoy soap, a popular brand in Bangladesh sold by Lever Brothers. "This hospital -- the Lifebuoy Friendship Hospital -- is the endorsement of our commitment to the society," said Sanjiv Mehta, the chairman and managing director of Lever Brothers Bangladesh Limited. The London-based HSBC bank also recently donated 300,000 taka (5,172 dollars) to start eye operations on the boat hospital.

"We hope others will follow to expand our operations and the United Nations has taken interest, about which I am delighted," said Runa Khan Marre, the executive director of the hospital.