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Swiss-based missionaries bring relief to world's poor

Land-locked Switzerland is the last place one would expect to find a medical charity which operates a fleet of floating hospitals. But the non-governmental organisation, Mercy Ships, has a base in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

Land-locked Switzerland is the last place one would expect to find a medical charity which operates a fleet of floating hospitals. But the non-governmental organisation, Mercy Ships, has a base in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

Mercy Ships is made up of international medical experts and volunteers who sail around the world to help the poor and sick of the developing world.

From its office in Lausanne, it works to co-ordinate its three ships which sail from port to port, performing life-saving surgery for people who have little or no access to medical help.

Mercy Ships' three vessels are the world's largest floating hospitals. There is the Anastasis which serves West Africa, the Carribbean Mercy which is currently in El Salvador, and the Island Mercy which is working in the Philippines.

"The whole purpose of Mercy Ships is to reach the poorest of the poor", explained the organisation's director, Trevor Davies. "Eighty per cent of the world's population live within 150 kilometres of a port city. Our aim is to meet the needs of those who are the poorest and to help them to have services that they cannot get in their own country."

"These are people who normally would not get operations for eye surgery, for people who have cleft palates and also for tumours and facial tumours," Davies added.

Mercy Ships' doctors have already carried out more than 6,000 operations and 650,000 medical and 120,000 dental patients have been treated. The doctors have removed tumours, cured blindness and fitted artificial limbs. All the services are free to those lucky enough to make it through the advance team's screening process.

The flagship is the Anastasis, which has a crew of 400. The vessel is fitted with three operating theatres and has a hospital ward that can take up to 36 people. There are currently 22 families on board and around 50 children. Currently, it is anchored in Banjul in Gambia.

"It's like a floating city," says Tony Meikle, who has been on the ship for 14 years. The crew volunteer from a few weeks up to many years and there are a range of social facilities and amenities on board. The ship boasts a bank, post office, hairdresser, a library and educational facilities including a nursery and a high school.

Mercy Ships has extended its missions to include building projects to improve facilities in towns it visits, as one member, David O'Connor, explained. "On one occasion I was able to work with a dental team. People would come in to our clinic that we set up in a village and they could see a dentist, some of them for the first time in their lives."

"I've also worked with construction teams. Once, we built homes in Mexico following an earthquake. Another was with a maternity clinic that we built in West Africa," O'Connor added.

It is also operating two land-based operations in Nicaragua and Sierra Leone, where it has sent specialists, including psychologists and occupational therapists, to help people who have lost limbs as a result of war.

Mercy Ships is staffed by volunteers and financed by donations from individuals and industry. The fleet has now grown to four, to include the newly acquired Mercy Africa, which is currently being transformed from a passenger ferry into a hospital.

Trevor Davies says it is being refitted with four operating theatres and an 85-bed hospital ward, which will be run by a staff of 450. The hope is that the medical mercy missions will stay afloat.

by Samantha Tonkin



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