Global Health Travel Blog

UNC Gillings students share their global field experiences around the world.

Month: September 2019

Faculty in South Africa

Blog post by Kurt Ribisl, Professor and Department Chair, Department of Health Behavior

Greetings from South Africa!

I am spending 10 days in South Africa (Johannesburg and Cape Town) and Zambia (Lusaka) to meet our research and practice partners.

My days have been filled with meeting UNC undergraduate students taught by Alex Lightfoot in Cape Town and visiting their internship sites. I gave talks on e-cigarettes and vaping at the University of Witwatersrand and the University of Cape Town. I have also been meeting with researchers doing cutting edge work in HIV and gender-based violence. On Sunday, I fly to Zambia to meet with Dr. Ben Chi (UNC Gillings) and his colleagues at the University of Zambia including the dean of their School of Medicine, Dr. Fastone Goma who leads some exciting CVD and tobacco control work.

Alex Lightfoot and I also met with the leaders of Black Sash, a group started by a white middle-class woman who opposed apartheid in the 1950s. They are still going strong and now advocate for social policies to benefit vulnerable populations in South Africa. We then visited the Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital in Cape Town, which is regarded as South Africa’s leading center for postgraduate specialist pediatric medical and surgical training. We met with a student who shadowed health care providers carrying out trauma surgeries to basic family medicine. She saw 30 burn patients and is the only specialized pediatric burns unit in Africa. Several were burned by hot water and others by cooking oils. She wants to learn more about public health and injury control programs that could prevent these devastating injuries. She saw two very young children were being treated for lipoid pneumonia, a condition brought on from inhaling oils in the home. I immediately thought of the 6 people who have died from vaping over the past 2 weeks, most of whom also had lipoid pneumonia from vaping THC and CBD oils.

Deborah Baron gave me her copy of Trevor Noah’s book, Born a Crime. I can’t recommend this book enough – it provides an insightful look at what it is like to grow up under Apartheid. Alex assigned this to all of her students taking her Apartheid class and we have referred back to it several times.

Just before I left, two events have shaken South Africa. First, there have been numerous xenophobic attacks against foreigners and their businesses. Many people are being forced to flee back to their home countries.

I met with Dr. Mutale from the University of Zambia the day before I left Chapel Hill and he mentioned that they had to repatriate all of their students from South Africa. Refugees filled the Scalabrini Centre on my visit there. Volunteers were creating resumes for them, helping them find jobs and fill out asylum paperwork. I watched a room full of migrants taking online courses at the University of Southern New Hampshire to earn their AA degree. One woman lost her livelihood when looters torched her business. Like others in our group, I bought one of her remaining 15 handmade bags to help her raise funds to start over. We were also saddened to hear of an African migrant whose asylum was rejected by a panel of 3 white male judges ‘because she had not been raped enough times.” Scalabrini workers are doing all they can to advocate for migrants during these tough times.
Finally, Uyinene Mrwetyana, a Univerity of Cape Town student was raped and murdered at a Post Office. Crowds of protestors are speaking out against gender-based violence. You can see images I have seen all over campus and town. I am so proud that many of our faculty also work in addressing gender-based violence. Like most of public health, this trip is exhausting and totally inspiring. I look forward to forging stronger ties with our colleagues and partners here in Southern Africa.

Warm regards,

A Glimpse into Humanitarian Work

This summer, I’ve been interning with Save the Children and the Interagency Working Group on Reproductive Health in Crises (IAWG), working on Adolescent Sexual and Reproductive Health in Emergencies (ASRHiE). Part of my position there was working on research to finalize the Training of Trainers (TOT) package on ASRHiE, which is delivered to people working in Sexual and Reproductive Health (SRH) in Emergencies. I was very lucky to be offered the opportunity to finish out my internship by going to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh to provide logistical support for a TOT lead by some of IAWG’s new trainers.

It was a bit tricky to arrange, since it meant missing about a week and a half of school, but I was very lucky to have supportive professors and supervisors. Thanks to them and to my amazing supervisor at Save the Children/ IAWG (and to some very quick processing by the Embassy of Bangladesh in DC), I got my visa and flight arranged, and arrived in Bangladesh on August 22nd. I spent the night in Dhaka, and the next morning caught my flight to Cox’s Bazar. On my way to the airport, I shared a van with a really lovely couple who had worked for Save the Children in more than 10 countries. We wound up going to dinner together later that week, and I heard all of their fascinating stories from their travels.

I had one or two days in Cox’s Bazar to explore, and was surprised by just how beautiful the town was. The beach is the longest one in the world (a fact that the country is very proud of), and some areas of it are very empty and beautiful. I took tons of pictures on my walks, and it was great to get a chance to see some of the less touristy areas of the town.

The traditional fishing boats that people in Cox’s Bazar use.

The traditional fishing boats that people in Cox’s Bazar use.

The main coordinator for the training works for UNFPA, so I spent Saturday at their office prepping all of the materials for the training. It was so interesting to get a sense of what the offices looked like, and to hear from the trainer on her experiences working with UNFPA.

Then the training began! It was only two days, but those two days were packed. It took some time to work out the kinks, but I think that the participants got a lot out of it. We had every person we invited attend, representing over 14 organizations working in Bangladesh. I met so many interesting people, and we got a lot of great feedback to continue to improve upon the training in the future. It was fantastic to get a chance to see the training in action after researching so many of the topics that were covered.

All of the participants and trainers

All of the participants and trainers.

Unfortunately, due to rallies in the refugee camps in Teknaf over repatriation, we had to postpone our scheduled field day until after I left. However, I was very lucky to have a colleague there willing to take me to see the camps in Ukhiya the following day so that I could see the health post and primary health care center there and get a chance to try out one of the tools we discussed in the training. It was interesting to see all of the steps required to visit the camps: I had to visit the government office to receive a camp pass (with a specific date and camp number to visit) and attend several briefings around security, child safeguarding, and media/communications. These briefings helped to ensure I understood the do’s and don’ts while in the camps, and to protect the refugees that live there. I wasn’t ever sure it would happen until finally, it was Wednesday and we were getting into the van to head down the coast!

It took about an hour and a half on winding side roads, as well as passing through several police checkpoints to get to the camps in Ukhiya. We first visited the Save the Children primary health care center (PHCC), which lies right at the entrance of the camps so that it is able to serve both the host and refugee communities. I got a tour from a staff member there, and had the chance to see all of the buildings within the PHCC. Everything was very clean and organized, and they are able to provide fairly comprehensive services there. The manager was one of the people who had attended the training, so she and I sat down to chat for about 45 minutes, going through items on the Adolescent-Friendly Facility Checklist. They’re doing really fantastic work there, and it was wonderful to see all of the steps they are taking to serve more vulnerable populations.

The family planning room at the primary health care center.

The family planning room at the primary health care center.

After that, we headed over to the health post in the closest camp. It was a quick drive, and then we had to get out and walk as the van couldn’t get the rest of the way. The camps were built in a flood-prone area with many hills and valleys, so steps and paths have been built into the sides of these hills as the camps expanded. We walked along the dirt path, with little shops, makeshift shelters, and learning centers on each side. All around us, kids were running and playing, men were chatting over tea, and people were carrying water and food back to their shelters. I was surprised to find that, in many ways, it felt like a more crowded village.

The health post was under construction, so I spoke with the manager (another person who had attended the training) in the temporary space that they are using, and again went through the Adolescent-Friendly Facility Checklist. They are serving so many people daily, each day speeds by and the midwives and family planning assistants have little time for a break. It was great to hear about their experiences at the health post, and to know that they are able to provide family planning assistance so many people.

The new health post that they are finishing work on.

The new health post that they are finishing work on.

After lunch back at the PHCC, we started our long trek back to Cox’s Bazar. The following day I did a bit more exploring, and met with the SRH Manager for Save the Children to talk through my feedback from the time at the PHCC and health post. She’s spent several years working in conflict zones, so I also took the chance to speak with her about her experiences. Between talking with her, the national staff at the Save the Children office, and the couple that I met on my way over, I got a much better sense of what working in humanitarian settings can look like.

Even though I only had a bit over a week in Bangladesh, I learned a ton between the training, meeting all of the amazing people working in these responses, and seeing the PHCC and health post in person. I am so grateful for the opportunity to put my learning into practice, and I hope to continue working with IAWG as I move into my final year at UNC’s Gillings Schools of Global Public Health.

– Erin