As an independent, international humanitarian organisation, Doctors without Borders is known for providing emergency medical care to people affected by conflict, natural disasters or epidemics across the globe. However, it also provides treatment and long-term care to many without access to healthcare, such as illegal immigrants and rural populations in South Africa, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Eswatini. Committed to the provision of quality medical care, the organisation has made a significant difference to many South Africans afflicted by HIV/AIDS, TB, cholera or other diseases.
Widely known as Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the organisation has treated 100 000 000 people globally since its inception in 1971, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 for its pioneering humanitarian work. The cornerstone of MSF’s services provided by more than 30 000 employees in more than 70 countries is its ability to respond rapidly to an urgent need for medical assistance through a policy of impartiality, independence and neutrality. This is key during times of war and civil unrest, which is why the phrase “without borders” is a part of the organisation’s name. It also upholds the belief that all people have the right to medical care regardless of gender, race, religion, creed or political affiliation; and that this principle should override border closures during conflict.
With logistics centres and warehouses around the globe, as well as prepackaged disaster kits – including complete surgical theatres and obstetrics equipment – ready to go, MSF teams can respond to emergencies with breathtaking speed. Standard supplies include Toyota Land Cruisers, communications material, power supplies, water-processing facilities and nutritional supplements. Thousands of tents, shelter kits and other non-perishable items are also available, and planes can be loaded and flown into crisis areas within 24 hours.
In South Africa, the need for such a response has not arisen; however, many rural communities lack access to quality, long-term healthcare. MSF collaborates where needed with government and other aid organisations to serve these areas, even setting up mobile projects as needed.
From its South African office in Braamfontein, MSF has provided healthcare in several regions. At Ngwelezana Tertiary Hospital in KwaZulu-Natal, a team of MSF doctors and nurses provided valuable services in a 113-bed COVID-19 field hospital during the most critical months of the pandemic. In 2019, the organisation also ran a large-scale community HIV and TB project in King Cetshwayo district, in collaboration with the Department of Health. This became the first project in South Africa to reach the UNAIDS 90-90-90 target. A survey supported by Epicentre, MSF’s epidemiological research arm, revealed that 90% of people living with HIV knew their status, 94% of those were on antiretroviral treatment and 95% of people on treatment had a suppressed viral load. In Khayelitsha and rural Eshowe, where young people, particularly women, remain highly vulnerable to HIV, MSF offered preventative treatment to 204 patients.
The organisation also collaborates with provincial health departments to provide victims of sexual violence with medical and psychosocial care at community clinics known as Kgomotso Care Centres in South Africa’s platinum mining belt. Other community-based initiatives amongst students facilitate the identification of victims.
In line with its impartial stance, the organisation has opened a hub in Tshwane to offer medical and psychosocial care to migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. MSF also champions the wider availability of lifesaving medication presently subject to patent, registration and financial barriers. Through its national access programme, MSF has distributed an effective cryptococcal meningitis treatment to 15 specialist facilities across South Africa. With persistence and dedication, the organisation is fulfilling its mission of providing professional medical relief and saving millions of lives across the globe, unhampered by political or social constraints.