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Jamaica’s First Lady Visits Direct Relief Headquarters

Juliet Holness, the country's First Lady, and delegation, speak about public health priorities in the Caribbean nation.



Jamaica's First Lady Juliet Holness visits Direct Relief headquarters on Sept. 26, 2019, when she received a tour of the organization's medical warehouse and briefings from staff. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

For Juliet Holness, Jamaica’s First Lady, having access to a life-saving medication for premature infants feels uniquely personal.

Several years ago, Mrs. Holness explained, a friend gave birth prematurely. Her newborn needed a specialized medication to treat respiratory distress in infants, and didn’t receive it in time. “It brought it home in a very stark way for me, it should never be that those who can’t afford essential medication are left to an uncertain fate,” she said. “For me, it’s always going to be very emotional.”

The friend isn’t alone: A high rate of Jamaica’s infants are born early. To help prevent unnecessary deaths, Direct Relief provides a medicine that enables newborns to breathe more easily, via a network of partner health facilities in the country.

That’s just a small component of a relationship that’s lasted between the organization and the Jamaican government for over 30 years.

And on Thursday and Friday of last week, Jamaican representatives visited Direct Relief’s headquarters to learn more about the organization, celebrate the existing partnership, and find new ways to collaborate.

Mrs. Holness, who is both the Jamaican Prime Minister’s wife and a member of its House of Representatives, was one of the visitors.

Infants often have respiratory distress when they are born early, and Direct Relief has been supporting hospitals in Jamaica with a critical medication that helps babies breathe. Here, an infant rests at a hospital supported by the Issa Trust Foundation in Jamaica. (Photo by C. Panetta)
Infants can develop respiratory distress when they are born early, and Direct Relief has been supporting hospitals in Jamaica with a critical medication that helps these babies breathe. Here, an infant rests at a hospital supported by the Issa Trust Foundation in Jamaica. (Photo by C. Panetta)

With her were the CEO of the Issa Trust Foundation, which focuses on neonatal and children’s health, along with three members of the National Health Fund – an agency of Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness that manages the nation’s public pharmacy, acquires medical and pharmaceutical supplies, and provides financial support to the healthcare system in order to improve access for Jamaicans.

A 30-Year Relationship

It all started with ham radio.

In 1988, Hurricane Gilbert – a catastrophic Category 5 storm – devastated Jamaica, killing hundreds. The damage was widespread, and communications were damaged.

But Direct Relief managed to make contact with health officials using amateur radio, and provided a 10,000-pound emergency shipment to the island nation. The organization has been active in Jamaica ever since, with an increase in activities in recent years. Just since 2009, Direct Relief has provided over $54 million in medical aid to eight Jamaican healthcare organizations.

In recent years, the organization has been instrumental in helping Jamaican’s government work toward a new, ambitious goal: providing free medical care to low-income Jamaicans.

“We, about three years ago, really got very strong into our policy of giving free healthcare to all Jamaicans who are in need. “Direct Relief and its work have been of significant help to the government of Jamaica,” Mrs. Holness said. “Our budget does not always facilitate us being able to do everything we would like to do in healthcare for persons who are in need.”

Working with Direct Relief’s inventory of medicines and supplies, Mrs. Holness said, is “like feeling like you have the support of a willing partner to help. Direct Relief benefits our most vulnerable citizens is a godsend.”

Meeting Needs and Goals

While supplying primary care medicines and supplies has been a major component of Direct Relief’s relationship with Jamaica, the organization also provides specialty aid designed to meet the particular needs of the Jamaican people.

In addition to the medication used to treat premature infants, the organization also sends insulin and Factor VIII, which are used to manage diabetes and hemophilia, to Jamaican healthcare providers.

Like the rest of the Caribbean, Jamaica is vulnerable to hurricanes and other tropical storms. Direct Relief supplies hurricane preparedness modules to be staged in advance of the Atlantic hurricane season each year. During the height of the Zika crisis, the organization sent stocks of insect repellent – along with an ultrasound and Doppler to screen fetuses for abnormalities caused by the virus.

The visitors toured the 155,000-square-foot offices and medical warehouse on Thursday, and were introduced to a range of the Direct Relief’s programs, from emergency response to maternal and child health.

Jamaica's First Lady Juliet Holness with an outgoing shipment of medical aid departing for Jamaica from Direct Relief's warehouse. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)
Jamaica’s First Lady Juliet Holness with an outgoing shipment of medical aid departing for Jamaica from Direct Relief’s warehouse. (Lara Cooper/Direct Relief)

On Friday, Everton Anderson, CEO of the National Health Fund, gave a presentation explaining the vital role his agency has played in increasing access to medications, reducing pharmacy overcrowding and wait times, and engaging Jamaicans in 100,000 yearly public health screenings.

Direct Relief, Mr. Anderson said, had helped Jamaica reduce its funding gap for medications and supplies, improve quality of life, and even save lives throughout the country. “In some instances where there are drugs that are hard to get, Direct Relief has really come in and enabled Jamaica to have access to these drugs,” he said.

“I literally told myself over the past two days, ‘When you go back to Jamaica, everyone needs to know about Direct Relief,’” Mrs. Holness said. “They need to understand the work of the organization and the significant benefit it has been to us as Jamaicans.”

Susan Fowler contributed additional reporting to this story.

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