World AIDS Day: Shipping Containers as Medical Access Points



This article observes World AIDS Day, 1 December 2014.


North Star Alliance2Mobile workers face many barriers to accessing adequate medical services in Africa. Long distances, fragmented healthcare systems and limited operating hours make it difficult to receive appropriate and consistent treatment. Mobile workers, truck drivers specifically, are often dissuaded from seeking medical treatment as limited operating hours mean they would lose out on valuable work time. Ensuring mobile workers receive adequate health education, testing and treatment is essential not just for an individual’s health, but for the entire region as it easy for them to spread disease to new areas, or bring it back home.

North Star Alliance is converting shipping containers into “Blue Box” clinics to help fill the current gap in services. Their Roadside Wellness Centres are focused on mobile workers and community members with limited access to medical services, specifically truck drivers, sex workers and people in communities located along transport corridors. They offer a mix of primary health care, education sessions, counseling for HIV and testing and treatment for HIV and STIs.

North Star Alliance uses an innovative IT system called POLARIS to help them decide on the locations for their services. It combines medical data, traffic and commodity flows and cost information to help ensure that all clinics are placed strategically and offer appropriate services.

North Star Alliance1Clinics are set up at borders, ports and in transit towns where a large number of trucks load and offload their contents. Informal trades flourish in these areas, with sex work activity peaking overnight. Hours of operation and tailored services for each Roadside Wellness Centre are decided with local stakeholders to ensure that each clinic is accessible and relevant to the specific needs of the region.

North Star Alliance uses a needs-based approach for each clinic, evaluating local, national and regional health issues and prioritizing treatment and testing for high-impact diseases. Roadside Wellness Centres are able to offer a range of educational programmes and medical services for malaria, tuberculosis, HIV, other STIs, as well as maternal and perinatal conditions and non-communicable diseases.

North Star Alliance3All North Star Alliance clinics meet World Health Organisation (WHO) standards, and have taken a “containerized-approach” to health care in order to provide a standard, mobile structure that can be easily and rapidly produced and delivered to new locations, enabling them to continuously expand their reach.

Working with more than 70 partners from the non-profit, private and public sectors, the North Star Alliance uses a collaborative approach to healthcare. They cite the principles of partnership, complementarity and accountability as being pillars of their services, and have a strong relationship with national governments and individual ministries in all of the countries where they work. They compliment existing services by working in conjunction with local hospitals and clinics, which accept client referrals and contribute materials and volunteers.

North Star Alliance4One of the largest barriers that mobile workers face is being able to access their medical records as they move along from country to country. North Star Alliance worked with ORTEC to develop a system called COMETS, which enabled clients and staff to access health records regardless of location. In 2013 they piloted a fingerprint scanner for patient identification purposes, which has since adopted across all Roadside Wellness Centres. The accuracy and ease of the scanners combined with the internetwork COMETS system ensures patients are able to access their medical records at every clinic, enabling them to receive more consistent treatment. The electronic information stored also enables North Star Alliance to monitor changing disease patterns in areas where they work.

Since 2007, North Star Alliance has grown from a single service reaching 5,000 visitors, to an international network providing services to 280,000 people across 13 countries every year.

North Star Alliance’s vision is to be recognized as the leading healthcare provider for hard-to-reach populations across Africa, with a goal of reaching 1,000,000 clients a year by 2018. Current plans for expansion include offering services to those in West African countries affected by Ebola. According to a November 14th blog post, North Star Alliance is considering setting up teams in Senegal and Sierra Leone, in order to “help keep the truckers, warehouse and port workers WFP is contracting healthy and aware of safe Ebola practices.”


North Star Alliance – Our Story from North Star Alliance on Vimeo.

Meredith Greey

Meredith Greey

Meredith is a student, writer and non-profit communications consultant from Toronto, Ontario.

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