Hey Everyone! My name is Mona Singh, and I’m a first year med student at Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine, actively engaged in my school’s PHR chapter. As a student advocate for PHR’s Health Action AIDS Campaign, I am excited to be writing to you from Kampala, Uganda. I am here with two other American med student leaders for the East Africa Health and Human Rights Leadership Institute on April 2-4, 2009. The event is organized by Physicians for Human Rights and Action Group for Health, Human Rights and AIDS (AGHA).
Though I have spent time on the African continent before, this is my first time in Uganda. I arrived a few days early with three national PHR leaders, Neil Chawla, a second year medical student at USC, and Justin List, a med student from Loyola currently living and researching TB in Kampala. We wanted to visit some rural and urban sites in Uganda and gain a better sense of the unique health and sociopolitical issues that affect the region. Seventy-five other medical and paramedical student leaders from schools in Uganda, Burundi, Rwanda and Kenya will join us later this week for the conference. The Institute will serve to strengthen a community of health professional student advocates both regionally and internationally.
On Monday, Justin spoke to the rest of us about his work in Uganda over lunch. I gained a deeper understanding of the TB-drug shortage and inadequate media and public attention to the critical lack of available therapy.
After lunch, Nixon, a fifth year medical student and one of the founding members of the Students for Equity in Health Care (SEHC), and Herbert, a fourth year medical student and current president of SEHC, gave us a tour of Mulago Hospital, Uganda’s largest hospital. Based in Kampala, it is the main National Referral Hospital. It has 1500 beds, and the emergency department sees about 100,000 patients a year.
Nixon took us to the maternity ward. Although the maternity ward has provisions for delivering ten babies a day, a startling 60 babies are delivered on an average day. There are also twenty private rooms available for mothers that can afford the 40,000 shillings per night rate, a hefty sum for a nation with 9.5 million people living on less than a dollar a day. On a given day, there are usually five to ten empty private rooms, but when beds have not been available in the public rooms, some mothers have given birth on the floor.
Nixon and Herbert also took us on a tour of the medical school. The visit was a particularly sobering experience. The medical students lack some of the most basic supplies that my peers and I take for granted in the US. Their curriculum is 100% problem-based learning, and they do not receive syllabi. The students are expected to research and learn the material on their own. Textbooks are too expensive to buy, and the vast majority of students do not own a computer. The students do not have access to PubMed or journal articles. They study at the library, learning from the few, mostly donated books that are available on reserve. Most of the books at the library are drastically outdated, gathering dust from the early 20th century.
I walk away from the day with a lot of perspective and gratitude for my medical education system. I am in awe of these students. I also hope to learn more about ways in which students in the US and East Africa can work together to address the needs of these students. Since the medical class of 100 has a ratio of about 2 males to 1 female, I’m also hoping to meet some of the female medical student leaders at the conference to gain a better understanding of the unique challenges women in medicine face in East Africa and how they compare to issues we face in the US.
I know that a week here will not be enough time to fully understand health, human rights, and the medical education system in East Africa, but my time here will provide invaluable insight on health care justice and advocacy locally and globally. I’m excited for the upcoming week.