How Can Social Innovation Improve Life in Rural Communities?

When Dr. Magaly Blas, an Associate Professor at the Universidad Peruana Cayetano Heredia in Peru, was researching the association between the human papillomavirus that causes cervical cancer and the human T-lymphotropic virus that causes leukaemia, she found herself travelling often to the Amazon region of Ucayali, home to an indigenous community among whom the disease was prevalent.

In this episode of “Global Health Matters” with host Garry Aslanyan, Blas reveals how these trips inspired her to spearhead Mamás del Río, a social innovation initiative to bring access to healthcare to remote rural communities.

Luis Gabriel Cuervo from the Pan American Health Organisation (PAHO), who advises the Secretariat of the Social Innovation in Health Initiative in the Americas, also joins the podcast.

“For a long time in science, attention has been paid to technical innovation, but quietly, social innovation has been blooming across Latin America,” says Aslanyan. “Communities, citizen-led organisations, and researchers have been collaborating to create new solutions to improve service delivery and strengthen health systems.”

Blas started her career as a traditional researcher. However, after experiencing living in communities with no access to water, electricity, sanitation, or medical care, something began to shift.

Mamás del Río
Mamás del Río

Focus: Pregnant women and newborns

When the study was completed and published, the scientist travelled again to the area.

“When I returned to the communities, I found women who participated in my research living under the same conditions without access to any basic care,” she says. “I felt disappointed because although I was able to produce new knowledge, which is what they teach in the university, my research didn’t directly impact the health of the people with whom I worked.”

As a result of the experience, Blas decided to take action, focusing on the health of pregnant women and newborn children, establishing Mamás del Río, “Mothers of the Rivers” – named after the Putumayo River that marks the border between Peru and Colombia in the Amazon.

According to Cuervo, social innovation happens “when communities and partners join to find new ways of addressing pervasive problems and strengthening the health systems.”

With its effort to bring healthcare to the most disadvantaged communities, Mamás del Río exactly fits the definition, and for this reason, it has received widespread recognition and support, from PAHO, the Government of Canada, and the authorities in Peru and Colombia.

One of the most important principles of the organisation is empowering the communities themselves.

“We believe in building capacity within the community by training community health workers,” Blas explains. “We train these community health workers who are persons from the community so that they can detect early pregnancy in their community and refer this woman to prenatal care and can also conduct home visits to pregnant women and newborns.”

Mamás del Río
Mamás del Río

During COVID-19 too

The nonprofit was able to help also during the coronavirus pandemic. While the monthly in-person visits to the communities had to be interrupted, they were able to train the healthcare workers on how to contain the disease, as well as deploy prevention material to over 100 communities.

Recently, Mamás del Río has also caught the attention of the Peruvian and Colombian governments.

“They were interested in implementing the project on the border between the two countries, to now use Mothers of the River, which is called Mothers of the Border, to improve health and uniting two countries through this initiative,” Blas says.

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Image Credits: Courtesy of the TDR Global Health Matters Podcast, Courtesy of TDR Global Health Matters Podcast.

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