Global Health: Low-Tech Donations Addressing Elderly Health Care in El Salvador
By Charles Redding, MedShare CEO & President
El Salvador, like other Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries, faces significant challenges due to its fast-growing, aging population. In a recent article of ReVista – Harvard Review of Latin America, it was highlighted that the population over 60 years of age in El Salvador will represent 17 percent of the total in 2030, and 20 percent of the total population in the region by 2050.
Unfortunately, for many very poor and elderly people, access to quality social services such as education, health and drinking water must be improved— measures that impact directly in the human and economic development of a country. Organizations like MedShare are working to improve access to quality healthcare for these marginalized communities, often by providing very low-tech donations that have profound impact on improving the overall quality of life.
One of MedShare’s longstanding partners, Food for the Poor, brought to our attention a number of neglected elderly communities in El Salvador that developed a series of health-related issues due to the environment, diet and improper skin care. We partnered to deliver petroleum jelly to address a number of skin related issues that were leading to serious health issues.
Sister Ana Beatriz, of the St. John of the Cross Health Clinic, shared that poverty remains very high, especially among the “peasants”. Though tourism helps to stimulate the economy, it has very few direct beneficiaries. Despite some advances, the residents of Laguna have not achieved much improvement in their living conditions over time because most of the La Montañona land is not suitable for subsistence agriculture.
The elderly supports the very life of the community through subsistence agriculture. They leave their homes at 4 a.m. to take advantage of the morning freshness. They leave barefooted or at best in rubber flip flops. They reserve their shoes, if they have any, for going to church or official business in the town. The result is a rash of foot related skin diseases. Sister Beatriz also notes how the poor diet and excessive use of carbohydrates and sugar contribute to a rate of diabetes that is in excess of the national average. By 10 a.m. the sun is at its peak strength and the elderly suffer a loss of fluid in their bodies, which leads to dry skin on their legs, feet, elbows, and other areas. Dry skin can crack, causing infection. This is particularly dangerous to people with diabetes that have neuropathy. They may not realize they have a wound that has become infected.
“Fortunately, with the donation of skin moisturizers from Food for the Poor and MedShare, we have been able to prevent these problems from happening by practicing good skin care habits,” said Sister Beatriz.
In the department of Cabanas, the soil is acidic and volcanic. With more than 55 percent of the population being impoverished, the department ranks second in the country for poverty. Cabanas is home to cement production in El Salvador and the workers suffer from constant dry skin problems. Dry skin develops microscopic cracks which can cause more water loss from the skin. These cracks also allow irritants and bacteria to get into the skin. This small issue has often resulted in a serious one such as skin cancer or psoriasis. During the treatment of elderly patients, the Monsignor Rivera Damas Clinic staff noticed a higher rate of skin cancer in the past three years. According to the staff, the cement workers just did not pay attention to simple cracks in the beginning which changed to major life threatening situations. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in El Salvador and the least likely to be detected. While not an exclusive solution to melanoma, skin moisturizers, like petroleum jelly, have helped to prevent incidences of cancer in rural communities.
Often, simple donations such as petroleum jelly or shoes, can lead to lifelong health benefits, specifically in neglected communities with aging populations. We have witnessed the life-changing effect in El Salvador and in other countries dealing with skin diseases. The challenge we continue to hear is that the very poor do not value the health care made possible by a donation of something as simple as skin moisturizers and the temptation is to sell a bottled product in the market or not use it at all. However, these simple solutions can often prolong life. The petroleum jelly provided by MedShare were non resalable samples equal to a single day’s use. The clinics often gave a 2 – week supply to patients whom required skin care treatment.
MedShare is grateful for partners, like Food for the Poor, that continue to fight to improve the conditions of marginalized communities by providing food, water, quality healthcare and hope.