Mobile clinics play an important role in bringing healthcare to patients living in rural South Africa. While they primarily come in the form of trucks or smaller motor vehicles, one unique initiative is using the railway system to visit communities across the country to provide an array of healthcare services and health education.

Founded in 1994, the Train of Hope or Phelophepa Train, which means ‘good clean health’ in Sotho and Tswana, travels across the country over nine months each year, January – September, to offer healthcare services to rural communities.

In a recent interview with CNN’s Inside Africa, the train’s Manager, Lynette Flusk, explained what makes the Train of Hope so special. “It’s a health train. We have five on-board clinics, which are: our psychology clinic, which offers counseling services; our general health clinic, which offers comprehensive primary healthcare services; our dental clinic; our eye clinic, where we do eye tests and make spectacles for patients; and a pharmacy, so patients can get their medicine at the end of the day.”

The train has 19 carriages carrying different medical clinics with state-of-the-art technology. The on-board operational clinics each have their own dedicated train carriage with a total of 70 staff members consisting of permanent staff, health students and security personnel.

“The need for such a service is immense. I think that’s part of the reason why so many of us have stayed on the train for so long. Everywhere we go, we have people that are queuing outside, sometimes people sleep outside the train for days just so that they can get service,” said Flusk.

During its 6,000km yearly journey, the train visits 70 locations where it remains for two weeks treating approximately 1,500 patients. The train service also provides a community outreach programme where staff provide essential health education to local schools and the community. After screening community members, if required, the patients are referred back to the train for treatment.

“We talk about HIV/AIDS, teenage pregnancy, etc. The communities are the ones that engage with us to say that these are the needs. We also visit prisons under the psychology clinic and we visit geriatric groups in their communities,” Operations Manager of Transnet Freight Rail, Thabisilie Makhaye, told CNN.

Due to the success of the Phelophepa Train, in March 2012 a second train was rolled out, Phelophepa II, to cater solely to the Eastern Cape. It has since helped to boost the availability of primary healthcare in the largely rural province.

The Phelophepa train service is a prime example of how public-private partnerships can improve healthcare services. Swiss-based pharmaceutical company, F. Hoffmann La Roche, sponsors the trains’ primary healthcare clinics and pharmacies, while Colgate-Palmolive partly sponsors the dental clinic. The two partners have been with Phelophepa since it started operating in 1994.

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