In 1956, three doctors – Michael Wood, Archibald McIndoe and Tom Rees – drew up a groundbreaking plan to provide medical assistance to remote regions of East Africa, where they had all worked for many years as reconstructive surgeons.
Spurred by what they had seen of the combined effects of poverty, tropical disease and a lack of adequate health services in East Africa, their collective vision was born in the foothills of Mt Kilimanjaro.
At that time, there was one doctor to every 30,000 people in East Africa – in Britain it was 1:1,000. Medical facilities were sparse, with rough terrain and often impassable roads making access to medical care difficult for people in rural and remote areas. As this was where the majority of the population lived, Archie, Tom and Michael saw an air-based service as the only way to get health care to remote communities.
AMREF was officially founded in 1957 to deliver mobile health services and to provide mission hospitals with surgical support. A medical radio network was developed to coordinate the service, and provide communication.
In the early 1960s, ground-based mobile medical services were added, along with flight clinics for the underserved and remote areas in Kajiado and Narok districts of Kenya.
By 1975, training and education for rural health workers were already a major part of AMREF's efforts. This included the development of health learning materials.
During the late 1970s, AMREF continued providing mobile clinical and maternal child/health (MCH) services. It also started to focus on community-based health care (CBHC) and training community health workers to deliver primary health care. Technical support units for CBHC, MCH, family planning and environmental health were also set up.
During the 1980s, AMREF moved into community health development, closer collaboration with the ministries of health in the region, and cooperation with international aid agencies. This set the organisation’s course for the 1980s and beyond.
Greater emphasis was given to strengthening health systems and staff development, with special attention to health needs identified by communities themselves. AMREF staff gained experience in planning and the management of health services at a national level – expertise that has since been shared in-house with health ministries (the first was Uganda).
In the early 1990s AMREF established a unique year-long training course in community health. The 1990s also saw AMREF’s work expand to include disease control initiatives, focusing on malaria, HIV/AIDS and TB.
During the mid 1990s, AMREF increased its focus on HIV/AIDS as it looked set to undo much of the progress made in health during the 20th century, and become a major burden to health systems in poor countries.
During the same period, in recognition of the need for partnerships at community level, AMREF engaged more with local groups to enable community-based planning, shared identification of issues and priorities, and efficient use of resources.
In recent years, AMREF has highlighted the fact that despite huge investments by donors in health products and delivery of health services, a large percentage of Africans still have limited access to sufficient and quality health care.
AMREF’s current ten-year strategy focuses on finding ways to link health services to the people that need them by focusing more on people, and less on diseases – making responses tailor-made to specific community needs.