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Health Guides for RPCVs Working with Refugees

February 6, 2018

Reposted from The Peace Corps Community for Refugees website, by Jean Aden, February 5, 2018. Read original posting here.


As a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ghana, I used Where There Is No Doctor as the main text for training primary health care workers. Having the students on hand with their copy of Doctor was the impetus for real change in health care in the village.

The information on antibiotics convinced one of my students, a “medicine seller,” to require his patients to buy and take a full course of a drug rather than the usual handful of pills for what ailed someone. Moving through the diagnostic hierarchies in the book allowed my students to be logical in their approach to evaluating illness and subsequent treatment.

ORS (Oral Rehydration Drink), the “vinegar” solution for ear infections, and even the “corn-silk tea” for swollen legs were invaluable, low-cost methods which made self-help health care accessible to those people we saw in the deep bush. Where There Is No Doctor helped change the minds and attitudes of my students about health in general and the change that one person could effect on their own. I am sure a lot of lives were saved and many people empowered as a result of that text.

— Talbert Bentley, RPCV Ghana, 1988-91

Hesperian Health Guides, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, California, has focused for decades on improving community health in countries where Peace Corps serves, and is now expanding their efforts to aid refugees and immigrants in the US.

Hesperian originated in the 1970s in a village in the mountains of Mexico, where a group of volunteers working with villagers created a simple manual for communities with limited access to health care, providing medical information that is both accessible and culturally sensitive. Donde no hay doctor was published in 1973, followed by the English edition, Where There is No Doctor, in 1977. It is now available in over 80 languages and is used in more than 100 countries around the world. 

This guide is cited by the World Health Organization as the most widely read primary care health information manual in the world. 

Along with Doctor, Hesperian has developed, published and translated dozens of health manuals on a variety of topics, including Where Women Have No Doctor, Where There is No Dentist, and Helping Health Workers Learn.

Since the early ‘80s, Peace Corps Volunteers have used Hesperian resources in their work with communities to improve women’s health and education, lead workshops, and help others diagnose and treat health problems. After their service ends, some RPCVs stay connected to their work by collaborating with Hesperian to translate these guides into the languages of their countries of service. 

Matt Heberger, a member of the Northern California Peace Corps Association, has convened other local RPCVs who served in Mali to support the translation of Where There Is No Doctor into Mali Bambara and West African French, both slated to be published in 2018 – a five-year labor of love to give back to their country of service.

RPCVs also continue their support by sending Hesperian books to their host communities through Hesperian’s Gratis Book program. The Gratis Book program sends over 1,000 free books a year to health workers and community leaders abroad who couldn’t otherwise afford the cost. Recently, Hesperian has extended this model to support organizations that work with immigrants and refugees in the US. 

A growing fear of deportation is preventing many refugees and immigrants in the US from seeking healthcare and other services, making these materials more important than ever. To address this problem, the US Gratis initiative is sending free health guides in English and Spanish to organizations that support refugee and immigrant communities. 

The initiative is run by volunteers, including RPCVs, ensuring that all donated funds go directly to purchasing and sending health guides. If you are interested in learning more about the US Gratis program, or receiving free health resources for your organization’s work, please contact Hilary Jacobsen, RPCV Outreach Volunteer at Hesperian, at [email protected] or visit the Gratis Books page.

Jean Aden is a returned Volunteers in Asia volunteer (Indonesia 1969-71) volunteering with Peace Corps Community for Refugees.