Mediamax Network Limited

Villages where residents take primary healthcare into their own hands

As the evening sunlight ebbs from the paddy fields of Mwea and most of the residents retreat from the farms, Eunice Mwai gets ready for class. With a leso wrapped around her waist and an open notebook in her hand, she clears her throat before addressing eager learners gathered under a tree. “The topic of the day is breast cancer,” announces Eunice amid excited murmurs.  Hers is no ordinary class. Eunice, a community health facilitator, is meeting over 100 women from Kadinwa Self-Help Group, Kathiga location to impart basic knowledge on good health, common diseases and prevention.

Amid the gravity of the topic they are discussing, there are sessions of laughter that light up the faces of women exhausted from the daily chores. Kadinwa is one among 65 men, women and youth registered groups  that have benefitted from the  Novartis Familia Nawiri (healthy families) programme in the area. In Mwea, Eunice holds health education sessions  everyday in two wards. She teaches them on hygiene, rational use of drugs, nutrition and non-communicable diseases such as cancer, hypertension, and diabetes. “Through these sessions, we have learnt the importance of keeping our houses clean, hand-washing and have basic information on common diseases,” says Rose Mathenge, a member of Kadinwa group. 

The initiative was started in Kenya in 2012 as a social component of the global pharmaceutical company with an aim of raising awareness on diseases and encouraging early diagnosis. “The initiative is aimed at having healthy families through disease prevention. This is only possible if the community is well informed,” says Dr Nathan Mulure, Cluster Head Novartis Social Business, East and Southern Africa.

Through collaborations with United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) and the Ministry of Health, the organisation has trained community health facilitators to conduct community health education. “We rely on a curriculum by the Ministry of Health to train them. Unicef trains and also partly funds the programme,” says Nathan. Present in 10 counties across the country, Familia Nawiri works with organised groups such as religious groups, chamas and community groups in rural and remote areas. During group meetings, community health facilitators get a chance to the members without disrupting their activities. Save for Kirinyaga county, which has three community health facilitators, the rest have one. Community health volunteers have also been incorporated into the programme to increase its reach.

The programme borrows from Arogya Parivar, a large-scale healthy family programme improving primary healthcare in India.  Besides education, the programme has increased access to drugs through monthly medical camps where members of the community are diagnosed and treated for various illnesses.” Once a person registers with Sh200, they can access a number of services including lab tests and drugs. We make referrals for patients that require further treatment. The money charged for registration goes to pay the community health workers, thus creating employment,”says Nathan.  

Incorporating lifestyle changes and attending health camps for early disease detection is helping prevent health problems and saving families money owing to reduced hospital visits. According to Dr Anastasia Nyalita, chairperson Kenya Association of Pharmaceutical Industry, the efforts are a step towards achievement of Universal Health Coverage. “As the pharmaceuticals umbrella body we promote ethical, innovative and responsible healthcare industry. The work by Novartis is commendable,” says Anastasia.

The initiative that is impacting healthcare at the grassroots level is not devoid of hurdles. Navigating around remote areas is a challenge for community health facilitators who have to traverse long distances to reach various groups.