U Public Health Expedition to Visit West Africa

U Public Health Expedition to Visit West Africa

Dec 28, 2003 5:00 PM

A team of University of Utah public health graduate students and faculty will leave Salt Lake City on Jan. 4 for an expedition to assess the public health system of a village in one of the world's poorest developing nations.

The six-member group will spend two weeks gathering data, tracking disease, and looking at myriad public health problems facing the region of Ouelessebougou (way-less-ay-boo-goo) in Mali, West Africa.

"This is our first opportunity to work in Mali, and we were very excited when we were invited," says Stephen Alder, Ph.D., assistant professor of family and preventive medicine, associate director of Public Health Programs at the U of U School of Medicine, and expedition leader. "We're going over to assess the area's basic public health needs, the government's ability to meet these needs, and, hopefully, lay the foundation for future expeditions."

Salt Lake City and the Ouelessebougou region already have a strong link. The two cities became sister communities in 1985 with the formation of the Ouelessebougou-Utah Alliance. Founded by a group of civic leaders concerned about the devastating drought in North Africa during the early 1980s, the alliance is a Utah-based non-profit organization that works cooperatively with villagers in Ouelessebougou and surrounding regions of Mali.

Traveling to foreign countries is nothing new to the U medical school's public health students. They have traveled to Panama, Kenya, Peru, Ghana, Haiti, Uganda, and other countries to assist with public health activities. The Mali expedition, however, represents the first effort to study and improve a real-life public health system.

"These trips give our students a tremendous hands-on learning opportunity," says George L. White Jr., Ph.D., M.S.P.H., professor of family and preventive medicine and director of the U's Public Health Programs. "In this case, they'll observe the public health challenges of one of the world's poorest developing nations, and learn how to meet those challenges in a socially and culturally sensitive way. They'll then bring those skills back to Utah and apply them to our population, which is also becoming increasingly diverse."

Alder emphasized that this and future trips will have a lasting impact because the Mali government wants to establish a public health structure in the Ouelessebougou region. U students and faculty will meet with local health officials and villagers and will stay in contact to follow progress even after they've returned to Utah. "This trip will not be a brief visit and then we disappear," Alder says. "This will be a textbook example of international public health cooperation."

To investigate public health in the African villages, the team has compiled a survey to identify both health concerns and potential solutions. For example, they'll study the incidence of vector-related diseases--or those transmitted by insects. Mosquitoes, flies and ticks are responsible for the spread of measles, meningitis, tuberculosis, malaria, and other diseases. Malaria alone accounts for approximately 20 percent of all young child deaths in Africa.

The environment is also a health issue. Contaminated water is a major cause of disease in Mali, so the team will measure water and air quality and also appraise disposal techniques for human and animal waste, as well as trash.

Jamie Clark, a second-year graduate student in Public Health, is looking forward to the experience. "This trip will, to me, encompass everything I've learned the last two years," she says. "It's everything public health is about. We want to look at where they are, where they want to be, and how we can help them get there."

Like all the team members, Clark, who is one of three graduate students making the trip, is paying her own way to Mali. She raised the $3,500 necessary by working weekends at her family's store in Arco, Idaho, for the past three months. "This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,"she says. "We'll be doing assessments, living like they live, working side by side with the health professionals there. I graduate in May, and the trip seemed like an educational opportunity and personal experience I just couldn't pass up."

Along with Adler and Clark, other team members include Beth Henderson and Christy McCowan, M.D., both graduate students in Public Health, Addie Fuhriman from the alliance, and Delia Rochon, a community health specialist from IHC.

"Participating in this type of educational process gives the student a chance to internalize something I stress in the classroom," says White, "that the fear of disease and the hope for health are common denominators for all humanity."

The U of U Public Health Program is ranked sixth in the nation by U.S. News & World Report. The program was established 28 years ago as part of the Department of Family and Preventive Medicine at the University of Utah School of Medicine. To date, the program has some 650 alumni, many of whom hold key positions in government, private, and public health organizations.

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