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NATO counter-piracy force conducts public health education off the coast of Somalia

SOMALIA - NATO medical personnel have begun conducting public health peer education off the east coast of Somalia in recent weeks, in conjunction with NATO’s counter-piracy Operation OCEAN SHIELD, as part of regional capacity building efforts to strengthen Somalia from within.  Focus areas in the medical assistance and peer education have included hygiene, water purification, and women’s health issues.

The first sessions have taken place in conjunction with general training of coast guards and port police forces off the east coast of Somalia in the last couple of weeks. Pupils from first the Galmudug Coast Guard and most recently the Bosaaso Port Police were taught on board ESBERN SNARE, the Task Force 508 flagship, by the Staff Medical Doctor and her team.  Trainees have received modern, military-issue first aid equipment as part of the training. Dr Rete Trap also has a Master in Public Health, giving her a very relevant background for conducting an ambitious programme like this.

"The aim of peer education is to spread knowledge through dialogue and role modelling,” said Dr. Trap. "First you pass information to the selected peer educator, respected in his community. The peer educator then shares his or her new knowledge and understanding with friends and family. Moreover the peer educator acts in accordance with new values and thereby proves the validity of the knowledge by action. The peer educator is also trained in how to best explain and argue the benefit in acting in accordance with the new knowledge. The ultimate goal is to have the information spread in ever-widening circles.”

In the case of the training on board ESBERN SNARE the coast guards and port policemen were taught about the importance of hygiene: when to wash hands, why, and how. They were also taught how to treat burn wounds and other wounds, using sterilized water.

However, clean water can be a scarce commodity in Somalia, so education in Solar Water Disinfection (SODIS) was an important part of the training programme. SODIS is a low cost-method that involves filling clear plastic bottles, with water that might contain diarrhoea-causing microbes and exposing them to direct sunlight (UV-light) for six hours. The result is purified, drinkable water.

"I was happy to experience how our pupils were very attentive,” said Dr. Trap. "They directly told me that they would go home and tell everybody they know about the SODIS technique. That is the kind of ripple effect we’re hoping for.”

Female health was also part of the agenda, with education and spreading of knowledge facilitated by the NATO Gender Focal Point in the region, Commander Maria Vang Knudsen.  By thoroughly educating just one person, it is possible to create debate and change attitudes in a whole village.

"Gender is an important perspective for NATO,” said Commander Knudsen. "Engaging and empowering the female population in Somalia is a key part of building up society from the inside. Public health is a significant factor in this.”

Lately, SODIS, hygiene, and women’s health issues have been taught also to other Somalis who have visited on board ESBERN SNARE. The flagship holds many meetings with local leaders, including women, to conduct peer education.

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