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Three-way partnership aims to improve health care in Africa

 




March 15, 2004

By Linda Green*

MEMPHIS, Tenn. (UMNS) - Two United Methodist-related entities and a research hospital have entered a partnership to advance health care in Africa by training medical providers to respond more effectively to infectious diseases.

Africa University, Methodist Healthcare of Memphis and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis have engaged in a partnership to equip health care professionals from Zimbabwe to deal with HIV/AIDS. The partnership is helping health care providers address the pandemic through education, prevention, treatment and infection control in their communities. Though the partnership is 3 years old, officials discussed it for the first time in recent interviews with United Methodist News Service.

The partnership provides a way for Africa University to do outreach and expand the church's ministry as well as change health care across Zimbabwe, said James Salley, associate vice chancellor of development at the United Methodist-related school.

"My dream is that United Methodists would see this joint ministry and their investment in Africa University as a good thing because of the human good now being done and the potential it has for the future," he said.

The school's new Faculty of Health Sciences will assist Methodist Healthcare and St. Jude in developing the program. The Medical Center of the University of Kentucky is also providing assistance.

The three-way partnership began with a conversation in 1999 between Methodist Healthcare Chaplain Elvernice "Sonny" Davis and Dr. Raul Ribeiro, director of St. Jude's International Outreach Program, about AIDS in Africa. As a United Methodist minister, Davis knew about Africa University and thought it could be the avenue for helping stem the pandemic in Africa.

Further talks focused on Africa University becoming the site of distance-learning opportunities for health care programs and St. Jude providing on-site training. The conversation paved the way for a study trip of health care professional from Methodist Healthcare and St. Jude to Africa. The doctors and nurses observed the quality of facilities and staff, and the high rate of patient death and illness resulting from HIV/AIDS in Zimbabwe.

Each day across the African continent, nearly 7,000 people die from HIV/AIDS. In many parts of Africa, the health care system is so poor that instead of being a tool for treatment it actually becomes a transmission agent - through the re-use of needles - in spreading the virus. Globally, AIDS is the leading infectious cause of death. An estimated 42 million people worldwide - including 3.2 million children under age 15 - are living with HIV/AIDS.

After the trip to Zimbabwe, St. Jude and Methodist Healthcare officials acknowledged a great need for HIV/AIDS-trained health care professionals for Mutare, home of Africa University, and Zimbabwe proper. A visiting fellowship was developed to provide additional education for doctors and nurses from Zimbabwe at St. Jude and Methodist Healthcare. Methodist Healthcare sponsors and funds the fellowship, which brings in two health care professionals a year from Zimbabwe for training in HIV/AIDS care at St. Jude.

The study trip also led to a meeting of officials from the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the Board of Global Ministries, Africa University, the University of Kentucky, Methodist Healthcare, St. Jude and Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center. As a result of that meeting, Methodist Healthcare of Houston provided a grant to hire a dean to help Africa University develop the Faculty of Health Sciences.

The health sciences department, which started in January, "seeks to train a leadership cadre of community and public health practitioners who will be able to function adequately in sub-Sahara African countries as managers of community health projects, district health managers, coordinators of district level HIV/AIDS and disease prevention and control programs," according to the school's Web site. "The training will focus on service in the rural areas, which are usually underserved by the health authorities in most of the least developed countries on the African continent."

Between January 2001 and October 2003, Dr. Miguela A. Caniza, director of Infectious Diseases in St. Jude's International Outreach Program, hosted 10 fellows from the university and Mutare, including four nurses and four physicians who trained for two months at St. Jude in HIV/AIDS education, prevention and treatment, and infection control.

One participant was Dr. Tendai Manyeza, the doctor at Africa University and Mutare Mission. The training gave him and the other health care providers up-to-date information and practical knowledge about HIV/AIDS, Caniza said.

"The ultimate goal is to improve the survival (rate) or prevent AIDS in places where it is so prevalent," she said. One day, she said, she hopes that trials of a proposed vaccine will be conducted from Africa University.

The university is a good partner because of its location, its mission, its resources and its environment, she said. "Africa University just fit beautifully into what we are doing here at St. Jude and what they are doing over there."

The university's Faculty of Health Sciences is identifying key people for training and helping determine how St. Jude can best be the conduit for that.

"Africa University is significant because of its relationship with the local community knows who they are and how those people can impact the community," Caniza said. One hope is that the university would become a referral center for other countries, so that people could go to there to learn about HIV/AIDS instead of traveling to St. Jude.

The school's mission of educating leaders is critical to St. Jude and Methodist Healthcare's international outreach efforts, Caniza said. HIV/AIDS is rampant in part because of the lack of education among lay people and health care providers. That, she said, produces a stigma of isolation and discrimination of people with HIV/AIDS and other infectious diseases.

"Africa University is the key for education ... and in the health science center, this is what they are going to be doing - training and producing health care professionals," she said. St. Jude and Methodist Healthcare would not be providing training to beginners or "from scratch. We are going to complement their education in providing information in HIV/AIDS," she said.

One way to do that will be through distance education, which Caniza says is "becoming an incredible tool in the age of globalization." St. Jude already uses this approach to provide educational opportunities electronically in other countries. Through a format such as video conferencing, the hospital can deliver lectures, lessons, presentations and diagnosis assistance.

The hospital uses Cure4Kids, an international online medical education and collaboration network that helps health care professionals in countries with limited resources treat children with infectious and catastrophic diseases.

Along with lack of resources, isolation is a problem for physicians in poor countries, according to Dr. Judith Wilimas, a director in the international outreach program. "One of the things we can easily provide them is the help and support ... which allows them to go on with their program."

Comparing the partnership to the parable of teaching a man to fish, Wilimas said the goal is not to tell the physicians what to do but to assist them in developing the appropriate medical program. "The way we treat patients at St. Jude is not going to work in Central America or in Africa."

The partnership has been a learning experience for all involved - the St. Jude and Methodist Healthcare officials as well as the practitioners from Zimbabwe. "We learned many things from them," Caniza said. "We learned that they have amazing strength and hope ... and vision and courage."

Wilimas took their impressions a step further. What was most significant, she said, is "what they are able to accomplish with so little - what so few people can do that will make such a great difference."

Dr. Patricia Flynn, a member of St. Jude's Department of Infectious Diseases, provided a list of ways to move health care forward in Zimbabwe and other developing countries. Topping her list is prevention, which can be accomplished not only through educational programs but also by working toward vaccines. A second step is preventing HIV transmission from pregnant women to their babies. The third area is making treatment available to extend the lives of those already infected with HIV.

"Africa University is crucial to these efforts," Flynn said, "because the efforts to educate people in Zimbabwe and the entire African continent are critical to have qualified health care people to deliver care among the population. It is through these individuals who are known, trusted and respected within their communities that we can have the most impact in spreading information and providing care. Africa University will bring to us a sense of cultural sensitivity."

Flynn calls the partnership promising.

"I believe in this," she said. "St. Jude is a hospital, and I know Methodist Healthcare is committed to working with this disease. This is done because we want to help people. It is not done to make money or to become famous. It is done because it comes from our hearts.

"It is a mission we have."

*Green is a United Methodist News Service news writer in Nashville, Tenn.  News media can contact her at (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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