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MORE than 50 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Health Science students will work alongside trained professionals to bring primary health care to 72 communities throughout South Africa aboard the Phelophepa health care train.

The first 18 nursing students from NMMU have just returned to the classroom after spending two weeks in Limpopo by delivering primary health care to hundreds of underprivileged people in the area as part of the Transnet Foundation initiative.

These students will be followed by other fourth-year NMMU pharmacy and psychology students at different points of the Phelopheba’s journey throughout the year.

NMMU has been part of the “miracle train” initiative since 2008.

“NMMU has been a pioneer through its Trust and Community Development Unit and has always supported the project,” says Health Transnet Foundation’s senior manager Shamona Kandia.

Apart from providing Health Science students, NMMU has assisted Transnet in developing a manual for a community mobilisation model and consistently provides strategic guidance and support for the project. The University also permanently engages with many of the communities served by the train.

Phelophepa, which means “good, clean health” in Tswana and Sotho, has been in existence since 1994 and with over 40 permanent staff and numerous volunteers. The train is more than a mobile hospital. It provides out-reach and educational programmes and has reached over 23.5 million people thus far, making it the world’s biggest mobile clinic.

According to Kandia the train does not compete with nor replace available health care services.

“The Phelophepa complements those services and aims to assist communities which cannot afford health care and often experience barriers to access public health services.”

About 50 pharmacy, dental, nursing, psychology and optometry students from various universities live and work in cabins on the trains for two-week rotation periods. Hospitality students also assist with meal preparation. In total, 1 300 students will assist on the train this year.   

NMMU students have always benefitted from the hands-on work.

“I think the experience was an eye-opener in how I now view primary healthcare. The interaction among the students across the various disciplines was great – a good learning experience,” said NMMU nursing graduate, Ryan McCarthy, who worked on the Phelophepa last year.

Last year, the Phelophepa assisted more than 533 000 people of whom 72 000 were from the Eastern Cape alone.

“The train is very well equipped – and really makes a difference to the lives of the communities it aims to serve,” said McCarthy.

This year, the Phelophepa will visit the Eastern Cape from 13 June to 12 August and will be in Alice, Dimbaza, King William’s Town, Queenstown, Burgersdorp, Swartkops and Willowmore.

Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University Nursing Science lecturer Dr Maggie Williams (from left) with fourth-year nursing students, Roxanne Jephta, Tyler Blignaut, Kate Leistra and Ethel Tsopo who spent two weeks on the Phelophepa health train.