Global med students aid Uganda

As the Uganda Village Project prepares to mark 14 years of humanitarian assistance to the people of the Iganga district, co-founder Alison Hayward recalls the learning curve with pride — when she isn’t handling urgent duties as an emergency room physician at the Yale University School of Medicine and Yale New Haven Hospital.

“I didn’t know much about nonprofit or public health when we started up,” says Dr. Hayward. “I was completely an idealist.”

Enamored of Ugandans after visiting their country, Dr. Hayward mobilized peers in the US arm of the International Federation of Medical Students Associations. Their mission embraced a village project concept developed jointly in 1986 by the Federation and the World Health Organization. Models now operate successfully across Sub-Saharan Africa in Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda, the latter a country with one doctor for 24,000 patients, according to the World Health Organization.

Dr. Hayward’s idealism soon met reality. Treating sick people was not the panacea she had imagined. Instead, it exposed a problem with deeper roots: patients coming back repeatedly with the same treatable conditions. “We realized that all medical problems were preventable,” Dr. Hayward says.

Spending a lot of money without making a real difference spurred change. The Uganda Village Project soon shifted its focus to public health aimed at preventing sickness. Efforts today envision a future with all Ugandan communities equipped to create and implement their own local health care solutions.

“We really learned the value of having local people solve their own problems,” says Dr. Hayward. “We really can’t understand their needs as well as they do and we can’t solve their problems as well as they can.”

Current goals span prevention and treatment in multiple areas. Tapping clean drinking water reduces decreases diarrheal diseases. An HIV program curbs the cases of HIV/AIDS. Mosquito nets fight malaria. Comprehensive reproductive and maternal health education and services promote infant health before they are even born.

Motivated summer interns attack old problems with new ideas. Following a summer internship, biology major Ce Zhang — currently a medical student at Yale — returned to Penn State University focused on the link between hand hygiene and bacterial disease, a leading cause of child mortality in the Third World.

Convinced that a simple, low-cost hand washing device called the Tippy Tap could help, he started a student organization called Tippy Tap for Africa aimed at raising funds to install these devices near latrines at eight schools.

Data revealed striking success with Tippy Taps in use. Zhang and his Penn State research partner Adam Mosa reported that hand washing rates increased by over 90 percent and reported episodes of stomach pain that signal bacterial infection decreased by 60 to 70 percent.

The Healthy Villages program works village-by-village to address the most pressing healthcare concerns. Volunteers who live amid impoverished Ugandans experience the local conditions. In contrast with everyday amenities in the US they face culture shock: no electricity, showers from buckets, and latrines. Nevertheless, some volunteers return and others go on to launch like-minded initiatives.

“Our hope is that they remain engaged and realize that if they do make a sustained commitment to humanitarian work to change the world,” says Dr. Hayward, “this is where they can make a difference.”

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