DIY Mission: A Risk to Missionary Health?

by Sean Farrance-White
Posted on 1st April 2009

With individual churches increasingly embracing the heart of international mission, proactively fostering links with partner churches and sending out small mission teams from their congregations, the phenomena of 'DIY Mission' is definitely on the rise. Equipping churches with the knowledge and skills to manage mission partner health before, during and after their travel is critical.

Church mission teams are a growing and integral part of World Mission. Dedicated to God's work, they are spreading the Gospel to developing countries and bringing hope to those suffering poverty and deprivation. While caring passionately about making a difference, some Churches often don't have the resources and knowledge of the larger mission organisations and are often unaware of the health risks involved with international travel in the developing world. Also, resource constraints mean that best practice in health care before and after mission may not be at the top of the priority list.

Speaking from his clinic in Waterloo, Dr Ted Lankester, Director of Healthcare at travel health charity InterHealth, commented, "An increasing number of mission partners, both long and short-term, are being sent out direct by churches in remote and challenging situations. This often raises a major problem in regards to their healthcare, and as a result, we have a new generation of mission partners who are at greater risk of preventable illness and an early return home, with the needless disruption this causes to all parties".

A common practice exercised by large mission organisations is to provide access to pre-travel and post-travel health screening. As well as fulfilling their 'duty of care' towards mission teams and obtaining 'fitness for travel' and 'health clearance' certificates, the screening services ensure that mission partners are fully aware of the health risks ahead, get the vaccinations and anti-malarials they need, are equipped with practical advice on how to stay well overseas, and have thoroughly considered how to manage any pre-existing health conditions. On return, screening provides an opportunity for the mission partner to review any health risks they may have been exposed to, and for the appropriate tropical tests to be undertaken.

Post-travel health screening raises many issues and is critical to ensuring that mission partners stay healthy for their next trip. At InterHealth, recent research has shown that approximately 56% of returning mission, aid and development workers on long term visits (over one year), have a health issue which requires follow up. For short-term travellers, common tropical diseases like Bilharzia, which can be picked up from exposure to stagnant or slow flowing water, are often a concern. A particularly alarming fact is that around 50% of swimmers in Lake Malawi test positive for Bilharzia exposure. Mission partners can be tested for the disease with a simple blood test but it can go undetected for months, which can lead to schistosomiasis or Katayama fever. The disease can mimic the symptoms associated with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, and if not diagnosed by trained experts in tropical medicine, has been known to go undiagnosed for years.

Mike Frith, CEO of OSCAR, the UK Information Service for World Mission concurs with the need for church missions to follow in the footsteps of their traditional mission organisation counterparts; "There are an increasing number of churches involved in DIY mission (i.e. not through an agency) ...this means that they're often doing things for the first time and lack the wisdom or experience of those who have been involved in mission for many years. However, if they have ready access to the expertise that the mission organisations use, and as long as they're asking the questions, then I think they're doing the right thing towards those whom they send."

With the information out there, and expert travel health services available at reasonable prices, the health of missionaries abroad needn't be a concern for 'DIY Mission' groups hoping to make a positive difference in an increasingly troubled world.

Sean Farrance-White was PR & Communications Intern with InterHealth.