Students promote health in West Africa

A recent graduate will educate Sierra Leone communities.

Kali Dingman

Gabriel Schlough, a 2011 University of Minnesota graduate, created West African Medical Missions to strengthen health resources in West Africa through community empowerment and education.

He laid the foundation for WAMM in 2009 after spending a few months in Sierra Leone. Now, the organization’s volunteers spend two to three months a year in West Africa, bringing supplies and educational aids to five districts across Sierra Leone.

A person in Sierra Leone has an average life expectancy of 48 years — many die from treatable diseases like malaria.

Biology senior Miranda Schlachter traveled with the group in 2010. She was attracted to the program because of its unique approach to humanitarian aid.

“WAMM does not want to come in and create a mini-America but instead learn how the country is already functioning with regards to education and healthcare and add to it,” Schlachter said.

One of the organization’s goals is to provide a structured learning experience for students to develop an accurate understanding of humanitarian aid. They do this by facilitating programs such as the Young Scholars of Sierra Leone, a six- to eight-week program for West African students interested in health care.

“It’s kind of like NASA space camp,” Schlough said.

Volunteers teach medical classes every Monday, Wednesday and Friday to groups of high school-aged Sierra Leone students. At the end of the sessions, students participate in an outreach program, which involves going out to the community and speaking with people about barriers in health care.

“Local students have the ability to understand local health,” Schlough said.

One group of students went to 420 different households to talk about malaria and how to diagnose it.

A child dies in Africa from the disease every 45 seconds.

In the end, Michael Olson, communications manager for the organization, said they were able to save one man’s life after he showed symptoms of malaria.

Olson, a mass communications senior at the University, said the program is effective because it reaches the core of the problem.

“The U.N. is dumping money into a problem and expecting it to go away,” Olson said.

Instead, by teaching kids about health, the program is providing the communities with resources they need to improve their existing health care so they can be self-sustainable when WAMM leaves, Schlachter said.

Those who don’t volunteer with education instead work directly with the health care system and create research associate projects with doctors and medical students. These volunteers perform more medical-based tasks like gathering clinical data.

The University is also partnering with the University of Michigan, the University of Washington and the University of Hawaii in a similar program that will train future global health researchers. The trainees will study global health problems like malaria and HIV/AIDS and look to find new ways of addressing them.

While in the community, the volunteers become immersed in the culture and befriend the locals.

“They live just like others are living in the country and become neighbors and active community members,” Schlachter said.

Many volunteers learned how to recognize diseases and would talk with traditional healers to see how they treat the sick and what sickness is affecting their community.

Since it began in 2009, WAMM has created two other chapters at the University of Maryland and the University of St. Thomas. The organization has been endorsed for the past three years by the Clinton Global Initiative — a program started by former President Bill Clinton to address some of the world’s “most pressing challenges,” like poverty and access to health care. Three of WAMM’s members were chosen out of 1,100 students nationally to participate this year.

Last weekend, the group traveled to Washington, D.C. to participate in the Clinton Global Initiative. They collaborated with other nonprofit organizations associated with colleges across the country and listened to a presentation by Clinton.

West African Medical Missions is well on its way to gaining 40 volunteers for this summer’s trip. The organization is planning to volunteer in the areas of Freetown, Kenema, Kono, Kabala and Bonthe Island.