Doctors start medical school in Africa

The East-African nation of Eritrea, a country bordered by Sudan and Ethiopia with a population of more than four million, has only five pediatricians.

On Jan. 2, with help from GW doctors and Physicians for Peace, six general practitioners without post-graduate training started as the first class in the pediatric residency program at Eritrea’s first medical school.

The courses are being taught by Eritrea’s few practicing pediatricians, and are coordinated by a U.S. trained pediatrician.

Two thirds of Eritrea’s population receive food aid. Life expectancy there is 51 years for men and 55 years for women.

“What you are struck with is how hard the people work but how it is an uphill battle,” said James Scott, dean of the GW medical school, who just returned from his second trip to Eritrea.

In fall 2006, the GW medical school, Physicians for Peace, and Eritrea’s Ministry of Health signed an agreement to provide post-graduate education in surgery and pediatrics. The project took two years and many trips abroad by GW doctors in order to complete.

Eritrea established its first medical school in 2002 in the country’s capital, Asmara, with 50 students enrolled.

Developing medical school programs in Eritrea is a cutting- edge model for helping developing countries improve there health care, Scott said.

The old model of training new doctors in poor countries was to bring doctors over to the U.S., a project that GW was involved in. This did not expose new doctors to the problems they would encounter in their own countries, and in reality, only a minority of doctors returned to their home countries. Scott said that this new model, which is not widespread yet, is the most effective and sustainable.

The number of students enrolled in the medical school is set to increase each year. Students will learn to treat diseases that they will encounter in Eritrea. New surgeons will be trained on how to perform emergency caesarean sections, although traditional midwives are still used for normal deliveries.

Dr. Brian McGrath, associate dean for graduate medical education and administration, said in the future, Eritreans won’t need outside assistance in conducting training programs.

“Several years from now our educational efforts will not be necessary,” he said. “The Eritreans will be doing it on their own.”

For GW, this project is a new step in humanitarian medicine. McGrath said the project “is directly tied to the GW Medical Center’s mission to serve international communities.”

In Eritrea there is a high need for greater technology, as well as for books, stethoscopes and other basic supplies, according to GW doctors. For now, however, the Eritrea project is focusing on providing human resources and training.

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