Sri Lanka

Red Cross Red Crescent partners overhaul Sri Lanka's health infrastructure

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By Patrick Fuller, International Federation in Sri Lanka

The impact of the tsunami was not only felt in the housing sector - severe damage was also caused to more than 100 hospitals and health centres on the coast. The disaster highlighted the important role played by inland hospitals, as it was these facilities that cared for many of the wounded when overstretched or destroyed hospitals along the coast were unable to cope.

With 77 reconstruction projects being implemented across 16 districts of the country, the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society - together with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) and Partner National Societies - are the most significant contributor to the effort to rehabilitate Sri Lanka's damaged health infrastructure. These projects range from the refurbishment or renovation of local clinics, dispensaries and oxygen storage facilities to the reconstruction of entire district and base level hospitals. So far more than 25 projects have been completed and 51 are either underway or at the design stage.

Careful planning

Building and equipping hospitals takes careful planning. John Wain is the IFRC's construction coordinator. "Many of these are functioning hospitals and one of our biggest challenges has been to rehabilitate sections of a hospital without disrupting the medical staff and patients too much".

The Hong Kong Red Cross is supporting the refurbishment of Kaluwanchikudy Hospital in Batticaloa district. The male ward has just been completed and has been put back into service, but in the half-destroyed reception area, nursing staff are trying to cope with registering outpatient appointments as a stream of labourers manoeuvre full barrows of cement past the waiting patients.

Dr. Dilanthi Pieris is the only doctor working out of the one consulting room that has so far been completed at the hospital, "We are working at minimum capacity, it's pretty chaotic but somehow we are managing".

Totally rebuilt

Further south in Ampara, Nintavur District hospital is being totally rebuilt by the Finnish Red Cross Society. Overlooking the beach, the 100-bed hospital was badly damaged in the tsunami. Workers are now moving fast to complete the roof before the monsoon rains come.

By April 2009 the hospital will offer state of the art medical facilities including operating theatres, X-ray rooms, male, female and children's wards and outpatient consulting services. The site hasn't been without problems. "Finding skilled labourers hasn't been easy", explains Aslam Yazeenbawa, the Red Cross site engineer, "hartals [strikes] happen on a regular basis here which prevent workers from reaching the site".

Further north in Trincomalee district, a hand-over ceremony was held in August to mark the completion of rehabilitation works at Kantale Base Hospital. The Japanese Red Cross Society funded the construction of three new buildings which will house 72 doctors, nurses and paramedic staff as well as ten of their families. The Japanese Red Cross also contributed a considerable amount of new life-saving medical equipment to the hospital, including X-Ray and ultrasound machines, defibrillators and ventilators.

Full potential

"The new accommodation blocks represent a significant improvement to the living standards of the medical staff working at the hospital and the new equipment will enable hospital staff to work to their full potential", said Jagath Abeysinghe, president of the Sri Lanka Red Cross Society.

August also saw the beginning of another major hospital project. Sri Lanka's minister of health laid the foundation stone for a new three-storey building complex at Polonnaruwa General Hospital. The Canadian Red Cross is supporting the project which involves the construction of a new outpatients department, X-ray room, clinics, dispensaries, an auditorium and an administration area.

In the south of the country, the IFRC and Sri Lanka Red Cross are close to completing two prestige hospital projects. By the end of the year construction of a new four-storey building at Kamburupitya Base Hospital will be complete. The new facility will house an outpatients department, a four-bed emergency treatment unit, a dental clinic, male and female wards as well as a pharmacy.

Future disasters

Perched on a hill inland, Kamburupitya treated a large number of patients wounded in the tsunami. The tsunami highlighted the need to strengthen the capacity of this hospital to face future disasters, especially as it serves as the second referral hospital for Matara district.

Balapitya Base Hospital will be officially handed over to the Ministry of Health in November. Serving as the main referral hospital for the western half of Galle district, the hospital's facilities were woefully inadequate to cope with the growing caseload of serious injuries and surgical emergencies. The Cyprus Red Cross Society has funded a new three-storey building, an outpatients department, intensive care unit and a brand new operating theatre complex.

"Red Cross partners will leave behind a significant legacy in Sri Lanka", says Paul Emes, head of delegation with the IFRC, "each of these hospitals can now offer specialized services to local people across a much wider catchment area."