This is my first blog ever, thanks to a hard-bargaining Jessica. I knew that the International Health section of APHA was the right place for me when I saw that one of the burning issues for the section is the challenge of recruiting hard-earned health workers from poorer countries by richer nations. Having registered for the IH section, I raced around that colossal conference centre in Denver, trying to locate meeting rooms. As the meetings progressed, I was dismayed to find that “international health” basically meant America sending health, aid, services, materials, people, or whatever to Africa and other resource-poor continents. It seemed to me that poorer countries had nothing to offer the richer nations. International health seemed like a one-way trip to these nations with no return visits. The question I asked myself was, does Africa have anything to offer, or has Africa ever given anything, to Europe or America? If so, have these gifts been widely acknowledged?
I can think of a lot of things we are doing right. For instance, Nigeria still has an amazing maternal social support system. A nursing mother hardly ever has to go it alone. Rich or poor, there is a neighbour, friend, mother or mother–in-law, or sister who is delegated, or who takes it upon herself, to mother and pamper the new mama for months. Might a practice like this contribute to mothers’ mental health shortly after delivery in richer nations like the United States?
In a country with so many challenges, getting through a pregnancy, while highly desirable, is an alarmingly risky business. Can you begin to imagine what the infant and maternal mortality rates would have been like without a powerful communal support system for every new mother? Fully-paid maternity leave for four months has improved what would have been a colossal disaster if working mothers had to return to work a month after delivery, or lose their jobs.
I live and work in Nigeria and have been in the United States for four whole months. The question I ask myself is, “What can I offer in terms of ‘international health’ to America?” Quite a lot, I have discovered. One of them has been sharing hands-on experiences about the public health practice in Africa from a different angle. Believe me, it is better than reading it in the books. Also, I have found a community centre in my neighbourhood where I volunteer once a week to set tables and help feed the homeless. (And yes, people, there are homeless folks in America.) Really, the greatest gift these ‘poor’ countries can give the United States is to look within themselves and solve their problems so that America can redirect some of the outgoing resources inwards. In my opinion, international health should mean the practice of sharing health information and services by all peoples with all peoples and not a one way trip by the rich to the poor. After all, what is a relationship, if one partner only gives and the other only receives?
Dr. Teresa Nwachukwu is a Humphrey Fellow at Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. Her area of research is Health Systems Strengthening with special focus on the human resource component system.