Posted by: calloftheandes | March 9, 2012

God’s Love in a Time of Rabies

HCJB archive photo from January 2010 shows Mark Nelson awaiting departure for Haiti, where he treated quake victims and later, cholera patients. As of this writing, he is teaching medical staffs there.

The biggest help for Dr. Mark Nelson wasn’t in his doctor’s bag but what came from his mouth—greetings and medical examination questions in the language of the Achuar people.

“My desire as a doctor is to be able to be part of my patients’ lives,” said Nelson, a physician serving with HCJB Global Hands in Ecuador, “And learning a language is part of that.”

During a brief time in Ecuador’s rainforest recently, Nelson saw positive response from the Achuar people of southeastern Ecuador. Like their relatives and once-mortal enemies, their language is from the Jivaroan language family. When rabies broke out in Achuar communities in late 2011, Nelson helped coordinate efforts to fight the epidemic.

Germán Friere, a friend and co-worker on earlier jungle medical work for Hospital Vozandes-Shell, requested Nelson’s help. An Achuar himself, Friere heads the Nacionalidades Achuar del Ecuador (Achuar Nationalities of Ecuador).

Ecuador’s Ministry of Health, meanwhile, had solicited assistance from Hospital Vozandes-Quito and specifically Dr. Richard Douce, an infectious diseases specialist.

Nelson accompanied Ministry of Health officials to a hospital in Taisha in Morona Santiago province. With a 60-day health state of emergency declared for a dozen or more communities, a Ministry of Health vaccination campaign was already under way.

“My role was basically coordinating between the Achuar nation and the Ministry of Health in Taisha, keeping information flowing back and forth as well as seeing patients in the hospital there,” Nelson said. The staff, upon confronting a father’s resistance to vaccination of his son after a vampire bat bite, sought Nelson’s help.

“We were able to visit,” he recounted. “I found out where he was from and I knew some of the people that he knows.” Between Nelson’s Achuar and the father’s Shuar language, they were able to communicate. The outcome was agreeable, and the boy was vaccinated.

Nelson credits Ecuador’s then-Minister of Health, Dr. David Chiriboga with excellent relational work during the crisis. After spending a night in a rabies-affected community, Chiriboga got up with the Achuar at their traditional rising hour of 3 a.m. to drink a tea called wayusa and socialize. “He had already done a very admirable job in building those bridges,” observed Nelson.

With just days to establish rapport, Nelson’s diligence of years earlier in conversational Achuar paid off. His ability carried as well a tradition established decades earlier by HCJB Global Hands pioneering medical missionaries whose stories are told in a book, Bridge to the Rainforest, by Eleanor Boyes. Since the late 1950s Hospital Vozandes-Shell has offered medical care and Christianity to jungle peoples.

The clash of worldviews however, continues to this day. “Typically the Achuar will come to the hospital and will want to be seen. But they will also go and want to be seen by the shaman (witchdoctor) as well,” said Nelson.

An Ecuadorian newspaper reporter wrote that “despite the belief that shamans must be a cure to prevent further deaths, hundreds of residents of this isolated area have agreed to be vaccinated against rabies.”

By late January people in Wampuik, Tarimiat and Tsurik Nuevo (up to 3,000 people) had been injected several times (the vaccination is a 10-shot series) in a Ministry of Health campaign.

“The goal now—in the planning stages—is to vaccinate about 50,000 people,” Nelson said.

After returning to Quito, Nelson expressed uncertainty that the Achuar would adopt a different worldview, but hopes that believers would remain steadfast in their faith. “My hope was to be able to encourage some of the Christians that were there,” he said. “There’s a very small group of Christians in some of those communities.”

90-Second Video: Spanish-language narration. Images of Dr. David Chiriboga on site in Morona Santiago province, Ecuador in late 2011. (Also shows vampire bats!)



    • Muchas gracias Rose. Y también digo muchas gracias a Dr. Marcos Nelson.

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