Army medics and engineers make their mark in Kenya

A team of British Army medics supported by engineers and specialist drivers are helping to improve the lives of villagers living in some of the most remote areas of Kenya.

The medics are doing their bit to try and eradicate childhood diseases by running an immunisation programme for thousands of Kenyans living in remote and inaccessible communities.

The immunisation programme, part of a much wider scheme which also includes building wells to help prevent the spread of water-borne diseases, is carried out every year by the British Army. The delivery of this vital medical treatment is run with the co-operation of the Kenyan Ministry of Health, the Kenyan Army and the Kenyan Expanded Programme for Immunisation and Samburu Aid in Africa.

This year soldiers from 19 Squadron, 16 Close Support Medical Regiment, based in Colchester, are visiting 24 villages and two clinics in the districts of Oldinyo Isiola and Sambura. However, this is often difficult with the personnel having to drive down elephant tracks and dried river beds, so accessing these

In some places the roads are not even shown on the maps. At best they could be described as dirt tracks, made up of sand, rocks and huge boulders. With the occasional fallen tree in the path of the vehicles, the drivers are certainly gaining valuable experience that they would not get back in the UK.

This experience has included carrying out a river crossing, an exercise which saw one of the vehicles having to be pulled out of the river using the Squadron's recovery vehicle, much to the amusement of the local villagers. Within minutes news had spread to the surrounding villages that the Landrover and trailer were stuck in the river. Around 50 people emerged to sit on the riverbanks so as not to miss the entertainment of the soldiers pulling the vehicle out.

Driver, Private Catherine O'Sullivan who, at only 5' 2" (1.6m), only just meets the required height to drive Army vehicles, said it was great fun: "There is no power steering so it takes a lot of strength to drive in these conditions, but it's great. It's good practice for cross-country driving. I've never driven on roads like these before; well if you can call them roads. When you drive on the sand it's like driving on ice and then you have to watch out for the massive boulders. But the vehicles are coping well, we've had a few flat tyres, which is no surprise, and we can only do around 12 kilometres per hour, simply due to the conditions."

Officer Commanding 16 Close Support Medical Regiment, Major Simon Nadin, added: "This exercise benefits both ourselves and the people we are treating. Our medics are getting valuable training experience in a harsh environment and the local people are receiving free medical treatment. We have four teams on the ground including a Headquarter section, all based in different areas treating up to 400 patients a day. We are immunising the young against childhood diseases such as polio, measles and mumps, whilst out dentists are seeing up to 200 people a day. This exercise benefits both ourselves and the people we are treating. Our medics are getting valuable training experience in a harsh environment and the local people are receiving free medical treatment. It is giving us all tremendous satisfaction and a great sense of achievement to be able to come to Kenya and help the local communities in a bid to keep the spread of disease under control."

But it's not just the two-legged humans that are receiving treatment. Army vet, Captain Cees Bennett, has been busy treating a variety of four-legged friends, mainly goats and donkeys. "I treated 8,000 animals at our first location; Ol Doinyo," explained Capt Bennett. "It's mainly worming and de-parasiting the herds. That was a busy two days; I see on average around 4,000 animals at each location, mainly cattle, goats, camels and sheep. It seemed that the herdsmen were more concerned about their animals than they were for themselves."

The main problems for Captain Bennett include dealing with festering wounds, blackquarter and long term coughs: "It's tiring work, but I enjoy it. All the animals are very well cared for, they are obviously treated well. It's just been a great experience."

And whilst the Army medics are busy vaccinating and treating patients a team of British Army engineers from 521 Specialist trained Royal Engineer (STRE) (Water Development (WD)), part of 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group, are drilling three wells up to 70 metres deep. Capable of providing 7,000 litres of water an hour, the wells will provide an easily accessible water supply to the local people living on the training area and for the British and Kenyan Armies who train on the area.

With each borehole drilled Army engineers will fit the mechanical workings of the well. Once the well components are in place a series of pipes will be installed allowing compressed air to be pumped down the well, which in turn will bring up the dirty water and debris until it runs clear. These pipes will then be removed and the final working components installed.

Staff Sergeant Higgins, from the Water Development team, said: "Once the water runs clear the pipes will be removed and the final working components will be installed. A concrete plinth will seal the top of the well over the surface to prevent any contaminates falling in. This is a great job to be involved in. We have been made to feel very welcome. Not only will it benefit our own soldiers when they are training but also the local community. All the lads are enjoying the work; it is good training for them. The wells will provide water for up to 15 years. We look forward to coming back to check that the wells are still working properly and to see for ourselves how it is benefiting the local communities."