In the battle for basic healthcare for poor communities in Peru, the most dedicated fighters are local volunteers known as promotores de salud, or community health promoters. For MEDLIFE, these promoters are indispensable; they help us provide patient follow-up, communicate with the communities where we hold Mobile Clinics, and facilitate health education workshops.
The first modern health promoters in Peru began in the 1920s with a program started by Dr. Manuel NuÃ±ez Butron, a Peruvian physician who had studied medicine in Spain and Lima. When he decided to return to Peru and serve the population in his native Puno, a rural province in the Andes mountain range, he realized that the scattered geography of the agricultural communities made it physically impossible to treat everyone who needed medical care. He also saw that ingrained attitudes and practices regarding medicine and sanitation left rural populations more vulnerable to disease. Though he traveled extensively on horseback through the area in an attempt to implement new health standards and vaccinate the population against the growing smallpox epidemic, the local population was suspicious and resistant to change. So Dr. NuÃ±ez Butron formed partnerships with traditional healers, training them to provide basic medical care and education on sanitation methods in their native language of Quechua. The program expanded to include local schools, mobile libraries and theaters, and medical brigades aimed at spreading the word. Back then, there was no Peruvian ministry of health; these healers are considered the first health promoters. They were known as “rijcharis,” from the Quechua word for “awake.” This community-based model of healthcare has proved effective around the world, and informs the work of organizations like MEDLIFE.
Health promoters were officially incorporated as a government program only about thirty years ago, and despite facing a low budget and lack of organization, they have been an important force in public health in the region. They are credited with successful vaccination campaigns, reducing infant and maternal mortality, and helping to stem the spread of diseases like tuberculosis, cholera and dengue. Thousands of community agents receive training from the Ministry of Health to work year-round on a voluntary basis. They may work as representatives in local health clinics, government offices, churches, or NGOs like MEDLIFE, though their primary responsibility is always in their own community. Though anyone can be elected by their community to receive training, they are primarily women, who tend to spend the most time with families and communities.
MEDLIFE’s field nurse Meri, who was trained as a promotora, says that the program is empowering for women and their communities whose voices might not be heard otherwise. “We can teach that we are all equal, and that we all have rights and responsibilities to our health when we visit with families and hold community meetings,” she says. “As community agents, our role is very important to ensure that the entire community works on health promotion and illness prevention.” Most importantly, she says, health promoters can relate to patients in a way that others may not. “We are in direct contact with families, we live and share the same situations,” she says.
Last week Meri attended an event held by the Ministry of Health to recognize these tireless volunteers for the official Dia de Promotor de Salud (Health Promoter Day). They shared stories and talked about the importance of strengthening health promoters in their communities by providing training that goes beyond just medicine, focusing on new programs to prevent malnutrition and infant mortality. “Now with MEDLIFE I try to link these elements that could help our patients receive a little more help, to be heard, and to see the social and human side of their cases,” Meri said.