Grassroots program offers preventive care in Uganda

The Edmonton Journal

Published: 3:02 am

When Jenn Brenner first went to Uganda as a medical resident in 2000, she worked in a children's ward in the hospital at Mbarara University in the country's southwest. Her training in Canada didn't totally prepare her for what she found.

"There were nights when a dozen or more children would die, mostly of preventable diseases," recalls the Calgary pediatrician. "It was something I'd never experienced in Canada."

Brenner was a volunteer with the visiting doctors program started by Edmonton cardiologist Dr. Zaheer Lakhani to help with the teaching duties at the Mbarara medical school.

While she loved the teaching, Brenner wanted to find a way to take medical expertise outside the hospital walls and into the community to help those children before they got so sick.

Brenner and her fellow doctors at Mbarara hospital figured at least two-thirds of those deaths -- from malaria, measles or diarrhea -- could be prevented with low-cost strategies.

But how to get those measures into the countryside where most people live many kilometres from a hospital?

Brenner wasn't left to ponder that question for long. Her Ugandan hosts came up with the idea to train ordinary people from remote villages in basic preventive health-care strategies.

"They came forward with a budget and a plan and we got the funding in partnership with the Canadian Pediatrics Society and CIDA (the federal aid agency) helped out" with $1 million over six years.

That was the beginning of Healthy Child Uganda, now a partnership involving the University of Calgary, the University of Mbarara in Uganda, the Canadian Pediatrics Society and Dalhousie University. Brenner is executive director and she left for Uganda again this week.

So far, about 350 volunteers have been trained in 175 villages. The volunteers, chosen by the villagers, come into Mbarara for training in hygiene, nutrition, treating diarrhea, identifying high-risk pregnancies and other local concerns.

The child mortality rate in Uganda is grim in some areas. As many as one in three children will die before age 5. So preventive health is critical.

Brenner says her best trip so far was last May.

"We went out to remote communities and the people are making a big effort to tackle health-care problems. They really are making a difference."

Getting involved in this kind of volunteer work is life-changing and very rewarding, says Brenner. And it's also a good reminder of how privileged we are here, she adds. "It's just luck I was born in Canada."

Jean-Louis Kayitenkore
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