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Medical Peace Corps could be key to healthcare in Africa

Dr. Claire Dunavan says Vanessa Kerry's new initiative could be the start of something big.
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Vanessa Kerry, the daughter of US Senator John Kerry, leaves a meeting with French President Jacques Chirac at the Elysee Palace January 14, 2005 (Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)

Claire Panosian Dunavan is a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles, a former president of the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene, and a co-author of the Institute of Medicine’s 2005 “Healers Abroad” report. Her columns and articles have appeared in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Washington Post, Scientific American and Discover magazine, among others. 

LOS ANGELES — Massachusetts Senator John Kerry may head the US State Department next year, but his daughter Vanessa has already launched a new era of global health realpolitik.

Dr. Vanessa Kerry visited California on October 15 and 16 and spoke to medical students, trainees and faculty at USC and UCLA about a new public-private partnership designed to boost the education of doctors and nurses in sub-Saharan Africa.

Will it fly? Or — to put it more bluntly — is global health still tugging at American heartstrings? Consider the turn out the Global Citizen Festival in Central Park last month. The five-hour concert sponsored by the Global Poverty Project drew 60,000 attendees and millions of dollars for health issues ranging from maternal care to mosquito nets to wiping out polio.

Sixty thousand is nothing compared to Bob Geldof’s 1985 “Live Aid” concert. Simultaneously performed in the UK and the US to raise money for famine victims in Ethiopia, its music and message reached nearly 2 billion people in 150 countries via broadcasts and satellite links. “Live Aid” marked a milestone in global health awareness. The following years and decades have seen a huge uptick in interest, especially among students and professionals in health-related fields.

Of course, whether “Live Aid” actually made a difference is questionable. Since 1985, African famines have continued to rage, children from “the bottom billion” have continued to die, and countless foreign aid dollars have flowed to governments and officials who, in some cases, could care less about their poorest citizens.

Indeed, in 2009, Zambian-born Dambisa Moyo took a bitter swipe at the “Live Aid” label in her book titled “Dead Aid.” In it, the Oxford- and Harvard-educated economist characterized aid to Africa as a curse fueling conflict and corruption at the same time it discouraged free enterprise.

Those of us who work in the global health trenches see aid differently. And Moyo might see aid differently too when it comes to money for malaria drugs, childhood vaccines, and antibiotics and anti-retrovirals. (On the subject of health programs, Moyo’s anti-aid arguments are decidedly thin).

Nonetheless, we are overdue for new forms of global health aid that offer not just dollars but skilled, motivated workers. That’s where Vanessa Kerry’s fledgling program comes in.

With little fanfare, the news first leaked last November. At a meeting of the Consortium of Universities for Global Health in Montreal, US Global AIDS Ambassador Eric Goosby described a new “medical Peace Corps” that would start by sending American doctors and nurses to a handful of African countries to work alongside local counterparts.

In March, the plan was officially unveiled in Washington DC. With support from the Peace Corps and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, the Global Health Service Partnership (GHSP), its organizers announced, would begin operations in July 2013 in Uganda, Malawi and Tanzania.

Several features of the enterprise echo recommendations from “Healers Abroad,” a report published in 2005 by the National Academies of Science / Institute of Medicine. In addition to a “train-the-trainer” model, the authors of “Healers Abroad” favored debt forgiveness as a way to encourage young health professionals to dedicate a year or more of their lives to overseas service.

Educational loan repayment of up to $30,000 per year is a centerpiece of the GHSP. And, boy, is it needed. Given the current debt of the average graduating medical student in the US, (in 2011, roughly $160,000, according to a recent analysis by the Association of American Medical Colleges) the new program’s long-term success may ultimately ride on this key incentive.

Still, the hunger to advance African healthcare seems alive and well. Since Vanessa Kerry’s Harvard office opened its transom, hundreds of inquiries and applications from passionate professionals have flooded in.

Nurses and docs, how about it? Care to take a year-long sabbatical from the stuttering debate over how to finance and divvy the astounding 18 percent of GDP Americans now spend on health? While waiting for others to figure that out, just think of the “Live Aid” you could deliver.

The larger global health community should also be cheering. This new “medical Peace Corps” could be the start of something big.

More from GlobalPost: Conversations from AIDS 2012: Vanessa Kerry on partnering with the Peace Corps

Dr. Dunavan can be contacted at cpanosian@mednet.ucla.edu

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/global-pulse/medical-peace-corps-could-be-key-healthcare-africa