Dermatologists Grace Bandow and Samar Jaber were surprised by the experience they had on their first mission to a Syrian refugee camp. They prepared for parasitic and bacterial infections associated with crowded living – minor diseases that flourish in “close, dirty quarters.” What they did not anticipate was the number of people who simply needed an item commonly found in a household medicine cabinet.
“It never occurred to us to prioritize Vaseline petroleum jelly,” they wrote in an article published by The Washington Post upon their return.
The doctors met many refugees whose skin was affected by the harsh, hot, dry, dusty elements: A man whose feet were cracked from traveling hundreds of miles and could not work until he had some relief; another who tried unsuccessfully to save his two-year-old son from a burning tent, leaving him with dry, irritated scars; a mother whose hands were so dry and cracked that it was painful for her to change her babies’ diapers and cook meals.
“When you think of someone living as a refugee, you think they need food, water, and shelter. You see explosions and war on the news and you think they need surgeons and trauma care,” Jaber saidr. “That is certainly all true, but the harshness of the environment and the difficult living conditions exacerbate minor skin conditions, oftentimes affecting the refugees’ abilities to work, go to school or take care of their families.”
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Steroid ointments and other forms of relief were needed to soothe irritation, blisters, and cracks in their skin, but Vaseline would provide relief – or be part of the treatment – for most.
Bandow and Jaber’s account did not go unnoticed by the employees at Vaseline, according to a follow-up story on The Washington Post. Vaseline enlisted the doctors as advisors to help address skin care as an under-treated public health issue, particularly in the event of crises and disasters.
Vaseline, and its parent company Unilever, are working with international medical aid organization Direct Relief to provide petroleum jellies, lotions, and other medical supplies to people displaced by natural disasters or humanitarian crises. The Vaseline Healing Project aims to heal the skin of 5 million people by 2020.
“Research revealed that relief organisations were already using petroleum jelly in first aid kits in disaster areas,” said Ricardo Pimenta, Global VP at Vaseline. “Our product was clearly needed and that is why we teamed up with Direct Relief.”
As part of the Project, consumers are invited to contribute to virtual relief kits to supplement Unilever’s Vaseline Jelly donations. Users can drag-and-drop kit items such as rubbing alcohol, gauze, bandages, soap, stethoscopes, gloves, and emergency blankets “into the kit.” Each item is marked with a dollar value equivalent to the kit item, so people can see what their monetary donation could contribute to Direct Relief’s kit programs.
“Deeply cracked hands and feet, burns from cooking on gas stoves or using kerosene lamps, and extremely dry skin due to overexposure are just some of the severe skin conditions we found in the Syrian refugee camps in Jordan,” said Kathleen Dunlop, Marketing Director at Unilever. “Even simple issues become very serious if left untreated in these conditions.”
In 2015, Unilever donated 1 million jars of Vaseline worldwide through Direct Relief and sponsored dermatological missions to Kenya, the Philippines and Jordan. The Washington Post reports that the company is planning missions to Jordan, India, Nepal, and South Africa in 2016. Unilever is also helping refugees through its support of Free the Children. The initiatives are all in accordance with Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan.