Enlisting female health volunteers to fight COVID-19

What is more useful in combatting coronavirus in remote parts of Nepal without medical services: a mobile app, or a grassroots health volunteer?

What has grabbed media attention are mobile apps to contact trace those who could have been exposed to an infected person. The Ministry of Population and Health has an app called ‘Hamro Swastha’ (Our Health) to help track down those who could be infected.

Kathmandu Municipality has a COVID-19 Surveillance System through which people can find out whether they may have the virus. Even the Nepal Army has issued the COVID-19 Response App to collect information on those who could be infected. 

However, public health experts say it would be much more effective to mobilise Nepal’s proven nationwide network Female Community Health Volunteers that has been the backbone of the country’s rural health in the past 40 years.

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Female community health workers have been credited with progress in infant and maternal survival in Nepal. They could form a critical link in countering coronavirus.

Epidemiologist Lhamo Yangchen Sherpa says: “Even in cities, it is doubtful if all the information on apps are accurate. It would be much more effective to rely on Female Community Health Volunteers to collect information through local governments.”

The government says apps are useful to identify those who have travelled in the same flights or buses as Nepali workers and students returning from abroad. So far, the five Nepalis who have tested positive for COVID-19 have all returned from abroad.

Former WHO public health expert Rita Thapa agrees that Nepal’s grassroots female health volunteers have proven to be effective in vaccination campaigns and awareness about prevention measures. “They could easily be used to collect information on returnees and provide them to the centre,” Thapa says.

Community volunteers have proven to be vital in reaching remote villages out of reach of even health posts, and mobilising this nation-wide network of more than 100,000 women would provide accurate and real time information on newcomers in the village.

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“Female health volunteers, nurses, midwives, are at the ward level and they know exactly who is coming and going, and if they see someone with coronavirus symptoms, they can send the information up the system,” Sherpa explains.

This has been done before. Female volunteers administering  Vitamin-A drops to children nationwide would send data to Kathmandu through their mobiles. They can do the same for COVID-19, but they first need to be given personal protection equipment.

“The volunteers would have all the information about where a suspected infected person lives, where they have travelled from and whom they have come in contact with, this is vital information in contact tracing,” says former director of the Health Services Department Gangaraj Aryal.

Female Community Health Volunteers have been credited with dramatically reducing Nepal’s child and infant mortality rates, and also in the rubella, measles and polio vaccination campaigns, contraception awareness, nutrition and Vitamin A programs.

Says Sunita Bhattarai of the Female Community Health Volunteers rights Protection Committee: “At a time of a pandemic like this, we are ready to provide the state all the help we can.”

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