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,
Kurt