Why we should all be global health warriors!

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University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) Students posing with Paul Farmer, the Founder of Partners in Health (PIH) University of Global Health Equity (UGHE) Students posing with Paul Farmer, the Founder of Partners in Health (PIH)

On September 14, 2015, I lost a friend. Actually I am ashamed of calling him a friend because the only thing I took time to know in the 5 years we frequented the same university was that he liked playing football and his nickname was Drogba. It was a sad coincidence because on the same day that he died, I started my masters program in Global Health Delivery in the brand new University of Global Health Equity in Rwanda.

At the beginning of the day, I was as many of my classmates, excited about the day’s lecturers. They were to be delivered by some of the most influential leaders in global health including: Dr Paul Farmer, the co-founder and Chief Strategist of Partners in Health (PIH) and Kolokotrones University Professor at Harvard; Dr Agnes Binagwaho, the Rwandan Minister of health and a professor in the same prestigious Ivy league and the oldest university in the United States.

When I read the agenda of the day, I knew that I would write this article but as I was drafting its first paragraph during the 10AMbreak, I didn’t even know about Drogba’s illness.

The title of this article has remained the same but the first passage was “In the current world, we no longer consider health as a job for trained health practitioners, but we have reached that era where every single human being, despite his discipline, should reconsider his share of responsibility in achieving equitable global health”….

I wasn’t sure about what would come afterwards as our next lecturer of the day, Dr Joseph Rhatigan, came in and I hurriedly closed my notebook to focus on his presentation. I wasn’t sure if my editor would like that introduction but I was certain, at that particular moment, that Drogba would not be part of my article’s introduction.

What do I remember about him? That nature granted him with a beautifully light complexion. He was an athletic, handsome man and he loved to play football wearing the blue Chelsea jersey.

I didn’t know that he was suffering from blood cancer, till I opened my undergraduate university classmates’ Whatsapp group. I was chocked to read that he was in a coma in the Butaro Hospital that is specialized in cancer treatment. I wasn’t aware that he experienced chronic abdomen suffering while in universitys and that he had been diagnosed with cancer a couple of years earlier.

Messages from my classmates were popping up so quickly that I didn’t have time to read every single comment, digest it and comment back. In less than ten minutes I knew that Drogba was suffering from blood cancer, he was hospitalized and in a coma. I learnt that he had gotten married and had a daughter and …. He breathed his last.

Drogba. A young man. An intellectual. An amateur footballer. A Chelsea fan. An agronomist. A father. A former classmate. A Facebook friend. A lost life.

I was trying to define what I knew about him and realized that I didn’t even know his family name and I had to search on Internet. Drogba was lucky as he was diagnosed five years earlier and had time to accept his destiny.

A block away, in the same Butaro hospital,  Muhoza, a 15 years rural girl lies alone and forlornly in bed, waiting to die. She has intestinal cancer. When the first persistent symptoms appeared, her aunty who was raising her concluded that Muhoza had been poisoned by one of the witches in their area. It was only a few years later that a community health worker, who saw Muhoza’s case worsening, convinced the aunt to take her niece to the nearest health center and then a referral hospital…

During the session on introduction to Global Health Equity led by Dr Paul Farmer, he shared the story of two really young medical doctors from Sierra Leone who had recently died while treating Ebola patients in their country. He showed us the pictures of these two smiling African men who were someone’s brothers, friends or neighbors. They died because there was no adequate staff, stuff, space and systems for them to survive. They died so that others might live. A tear surprised me and rolled down my cheek. Unfortunately, no tears in the world would ever bring life back into these gallant sons of Africa.

Same case for Muhoza, the fifteen year old girl. There were no available and accessible facilities for discerning her illness till it was too late. When we talk about delivery of healthcare, we don’t only refer to the supply of medicines at health facilities in general but we also mean availing disease detection methods as well as prevention.

If Muhoza’s cancer had been detected in 2012 or 2013, she probably would have been treated on time and her imminent death would have been prevented. As a young girl, Muhoza would have lived longer to proudly bring the dowry to her aunt at her wedding.

Muhoza is just one example of millions of preventable deaths. According to Dr Joia Mukherjee, the Chief Medical Officer at PIH “the world has enough resources for everyone to live a healthy life.”  But where is that money? What are health priorities and who defines them to ensure that every individual’s life, including Muhoza’s, counts on the agenda?

Currently, Rwanda’s life expectancy is estimated at 65.7 years. Drogba died 36.7 years earlier than what statistics granted him. For Christians, the simple way to deny this deplorable loss was to think that God needed his son more than we did. When a person dies in Rwanda, the most respectful words that are often invoked are “Kwitaba Imana” literally meaning responding to God’s call.

I do understand that this is one of the resilient ways Africans accept tragedies like death.

But on the hand, as a health equity fighter, I believe that we have to acknowledge that we need to make more efforts to improve the way healthcare systems are delivered all over the world and create a space for Muhoza to survive.

Drogba was a bachelor’s degree holder who died prematurely despite early detection of his cancer. A young life brutally cut short. Muhoza may still be hanging on but only barely. We must help her to at least have a dignified sunset even as we fight for early detection amongst those like her who live in the remotest corners of Rwanda.

We all have an individual and collective responsibility to ensure that health equity becomes a global human right. This responsibility is not a preserve of the ministries of health. We must all step up to the plate so that we can achieve health systems with less or no disparities and inequalities.

It’s about creating a world where an agronomist will help farmers to grow nutritious food to reduce the malnutrition prevalence thus reducing the global burden of disease caused by this issue. It’s about raising awareness about the role of an accountant to manage every single penny and ensure that all financial resources are spent on the real health needs. It is about a human resource manager hiring qualified staff that will positively impact the health of our people. It is also about the role of a famous journalist sharing information about the best health practices for preventing certain diseases.

That’s why we should all be global health warriors as our behavioral actions can positively or negatively impact others’ lives, mainly the most vulnerable. We are in this global world where my life is intimately interconnected to a citizen of Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Free Town or Bangkok. It is a collective fight and we must win it for the sake of other Drogbas and Muhozas out there.

Caroline Numuhire

I am in love with Mr. Pen

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