By Sujal Parikh (Saturday, Aug 23, 2008)
The G8 meetings that took place last month in Hokkaido, Japan were in the headlines in Uganda, where I have been working on a research project this summer. The group pledged $60 billion over the next five years to fight disease in Africa. Unfortunately, the last pledge the G8 made—to increase aid to Africa to $25 billion by 2010—is woefully off track. The One Campaign reports that the G8 countries have delivered only 14 percent of the funds.
That aid—and fair trade—is particularly needed now. As food and fuel prices increase around the world, hard won gains in poverty reduction are at risk of being wiped away. The World Bank estimates that up to 30 million people in Africa could drop below the poverty line because of the increased cost of food.
With these figures as a backdrop, I had a chance to meet with Joseph Kalanzi and Nixon Niyonzima, two leaders of Students for Equity in Healthcare (SEHC) in Kampala. SEHC is supported by Physicians for Human Rights and its sister organization in Uganda, the Action Group for Health, Human Rights, and AIDS. SEHC was a key ally in PHR’s efforts in support of the African Health Capacity Investment Act of 2007. Medical, nursing, and paramedical students made a series of YouTube videos and distributed a sign-on letter in support of act, which is now part of the recently passed PEPFAR Reauthorization legislation. Sunny Kishore, of Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, had a similar experience with other students a few months ago.
As Joseph, Nixon, and I discussed medical education, the health system, ways we could foster collaborations between students in the US and Uganda, we kept returning to the topic of occupational safety. Among other risks, medical students in Uganda are not offered vaccinations for Hepatitis B, nor are they provided with any gloves. Those that can afford these protective measures buy them with their own money, while the rest make due without.
Lack of personal protective equipment, in addition to low salaries, overcrowded hospitals, and limited opportunities to utilize their skills are some of the reasons driving health professionals out of Africa – mostly to industrialized countries. Efforts to create conditions that encourage health professionals to stay in their home countries without putting their lives and livelihoods at risk would have a dramatic effect on their respective health systems.
Nations accepting health professionals from those experiencing a health workforce shortage have a responsibility to slow this brain drain and mitigate its effects. Funding for such measures is included in the PEPFAR Reauthorization legislation.
Regardless of where you are, email me if you would like get involved with these efforts. There are many ways for us to work together and even more reasons for doing so.
Sujal Parikh is a medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. He can be reached at smparikh at umich dot edu.