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Stop and take a different approach

If there is one image that comes to mind when I think of the continent of Africa, it is the image of starving children. After years of seeing commercials on television that depict malnourished children, it has left an indelible mark on me. Yet, I was largely ignorant about the causes and solutions being implemented throughout the developing world to eradicate poverty and hunger. My fellowship with the Access Project has given me the opportunity to learn more about global health care access and the goals and strategies being implemented around the world. This has allowed me to take a different approach to my own work here in Rwanda.

When the world leaders drafted the Millennium Development Goals in 2000, among the eight goals that were established, was the goal to halve the proportion of people who suffer from hunger by 2015. According to statistics from the United Nations, most countries are on target to meet this goal. However, there is still significant work to be done in the next four years to fix the disparity between the urban and rural populations. The UN reported that children in rural areas are nearly twice as likely to be underweight as those in urban areas. When I arrived in Rwanda, I noticed the significant differences between the two populations including access to healthcare, jobs, food and other necessities. A recent trip that I took to the Bugesera district highlighted some of the simple yet effective ways that the Access Project is working to increase health care access and decrease malnutrition among patients in the community. According to the 2005 Rwanda Demographic Health Survey, “Vitamin A deficiency is the main cause of preventable blindness in Africa and a contributor to morbidity and mortality. Groups that are vulnerable to Vitamin A deficiency include children under the age of five, pregnant women and nursing mothers.” UNICEF and WHO recommend Vitamin A supplementation strategies for countries like Rwanda, whose child mortality rates exceed guideline goals. The Ngeruka Health Center and the Gashora Health Center are two model health centers in the Bugesera district. These health centers offer comprehensive services to their surrounding communities, which as I found out, includes nutrition solutions.  The Access Project recently planted fruit trees for patient and staff consumption as well as nutrition demonstrations. The fruits are high in Vitamin A, which not only prevents and treats night blindness, but also reduces the susceptibility to and the severity of infectious diseases. As the trees spring on the grounds of the health center, patients will be able to enjoy mangoes, passion fruit, guava, and other delicious fruits. The fruit trees served as a reminder to me, that solutions to common problems do not have to be lengthy or complicated. Solutions to poverty and hunger in these rural areas may be as simple as planting a tree and teaching people how to choose nutritious foods. The same theory can be applied to my role as a Communications and Media Fellow. In addition to writing articles, I have to devise some simple and effective solutions for improving communications, before I leave in August. Previous communications strategies may have been too complicated or required too much of a cultural shift to be effective. In short, things that work in the United States won’t necessarily work in Rwanda. So I have to stop thinking of elaborate schemes and plans and simplify my approach. Also, it would be easy for me to think that I am only here to implement communications strategies and make that a sustainable function. While I may have started out as the teacher, as often happens in such relationships, I have become the willing student. This experience has taught me more about global health and increasing access to healthcare than any textbook or classroom ever could. When I return to the U.S., I hope to apply these approaches to my work as a representative in Brooklyn.

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