McMaster University

McMaster University

Faculty of
Health Sciences

Advancing health in Africa: Building the first medical school in Namibia

Series by Tina Depko, Health Sciences
Published: February 5, 2018
Martha Fulford is fostering sustainable medical care in Namibia as a guest instructor at the country's first medical school.
Martha Fulford is fostering sustainable medical care in Namibia as a guest instructor at the country's first medical school.

This is part one of a six-part feature on members of the Faculty of Health Sciences advancing human health with partners in Africa.  

Christian Kraeker MD '06 has lost track of the exact number of times he has travelled to Namibia to help develop the country's first cohort of locally-trained physicians. His estimate is 14.

Medical professionals are a national need in the southwestern African country that is home to approximately 2.5 million people.

Until recently, the problem was compounded by a lack of a medical school in the country to train doctors, but that changed in 2010 when the University of Namibia (UNAM) School of Medicine opened its doors and welcomed its first group of 55 medical students.

Prior to its opening, the school put out an international call for medical professionals to help develop the curriculum and serve as guest instructors.

Kraeker, associate professor of internal medicine in McMaster University's Department of Medicine at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, was one of those who answered the call.

"I was working on my masters of tropical medicine in the U.K. at the time, so I went to UNAM to teach internal medicine and work on my thesis," he says, noting he had not visited the country prior to that time.

"I got along with everyone so well during my first visit and I continued going back between two to three times a year."

Kraeker, now also an adjunct professor of internal medicine for the UNAM School of Medicine, travels to Namibia each spring and fall to give lectures, perform hospital bedside teaching, help develop curriculum and assist with exams.

"Being part of training these students is very cool," he says. "After they graduate, a lot of these kids will go back home because they want to make a difference in their communities as physicians. In some cases, they will be the only doctors in their area, but as we train more students, hopefully that will change."

Kraeker says he gets as much out of the experience as he gives. He has worked in Zimbabwe, Uganda, Ecuador and Peru, but has focused his efforts solely on Namibia for the past seven years.

Of course, it also helps that the climate of the country is more temperate than ours.

"For the past seven years, leaving Canada for the month of February and going somewhere warm has been great," he says.

The UNAM School of Medicine faculty members are currently working with its international team of medical professionals, including Kraeker, to develop a post-graduate program to foster a cohort of specialists and scientists.

Martha Fulford MD '96 says it was an easy sell when Kraeker asked her to become part of the UNAM School of Medicine initiative. As someone who had previously worked in international development in Zimbabwe, the concept was appealing.

Fulford started as a guest instructor at UNAM in 2013, and has made three more trips to Namibia since. 

"One of the things I feel strongly about is sustainability," says Fulford, associate professor of infectious diseases in the Department of Medicine.

"By going out and helping to create the curriculum, develop the lectures and train years of students in the medical school, that has made a sustainable impact on the country."

Fulford says she is always impressed by the students in the UNAM School of Medicine.

"What I enjoy the most is the diversity of the students representing different cultural backgrounds of Namibia and the gender diversity," she says. "It is also amazing to see their sheer enthusiasm. I think they see it as a huge opportunity and they appreciate how hard it was to get to where they are."

Fulford points out the medical challenges facing Namibia are different than in Canada.

There are struggles retaining physicians in the public sector, a lack of medical professionals across the board, as well as difficulty accessing medication in the public health sector.

According to the World Health Organization, the top 10 causes of death are currently AIDS, diarrhea, pneumonia, pulmonary tuberculosis, health failure, other respiratory system ailments, anemia, malnutrition, stroke and malaria. The average life expectancy is about 62 years. Newborn mortality accounts for 50 per cent of child mortality.

"You see a degree of medical conditions we don't see here," she says. "While they have the facilities, they are lacking trained people to treat them."

Among the McMaster faculty members also lending their time and talents at the UNAM School of Medicine are Assistant Professor Zain Chagla, Professor Akbar Panju, Associate Professor Tim O'Shea, Associate Professor Philippe El-Helou and Assistant Professor Serena Gundy, all of whom are in the Department of Medicine.

Read other articles in this series:

05/02/2018 - Advancing health in Africa: Building the first medical school in Namibia
05/02/2018 - Advancing health in Africa: Using rehabilitation to help those living with HIV in Zambia
06/02/2018 - Advancing health in Africa: Nurturing psychiatrists in Uganda
06/02/2018 - Advancing health in Africa: Supporting healthy life trajectories in South Africa
07/02/2018 - Advancing health in Africa: Mentoring subspecialists from Uganda in Hamilton
07/02/2018 - Advancing health in Africa: Giving pregnant women the right to safe deliveries in Uganda

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