Climbing the Health Learning Curve Together

New capacity and fresh insights are among the goals of the Teasdale-Corti global health program that aims to expand the influence of research over a wide range of health issues.

When a group of health researchers — with specialties as diverse as the regions they represent — meet for the first time, what do they talk about?

In the case of the Teasdale-Corti Global Health Partnership, an umbrella for 14 research teams that gathered to compare notes in Ottawa in November, discussion centered on how to realize the promise of a new style of collaboration — and how to overcome the obstacles that come with venturing into new territory.

The participants were all successful applicants to a competition for funding announced by the Global Health Research Initiative (GHRI) — a partnership of IDRC, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Health Canada, and the Canadian International Development Agency — in late 2005.

GHRI was looking to support innovative programs of work that would bring the expertise of both Canadian and developing-country researchers and policymakers to bear on global health issues.

A new style of collaboration

Part of the idea behind these transnational collaborations, as IDRC Vice-President Rohinton Medora told the assembly, is that “health is something that knows no boundaries — it is genuinely a global public good. Things that happen here affect people over there, and vice versa, so knowledge should flow freely across borders.”

There’s an expectation that this free flow of knowledge will enhance research capacity in the South. Many of the projects are creating master’s programs at their host universities — programs which will provide new resources for equipment and salaries, and help train graduate students to assist on today’s research and, hopefully, to set the research agenda of tomorrow.

This capacity-building objective is reflected in the program’s name, which pays homage to the husband and wife team of Dr Lucille Teasdale (a Canadian) and Dr Piero Corti (an Italian), who over a half-century ago founded a dispensary in northern Uganda. The couple’s long-term objective was that their facility should take root in the local soil, and today — true to that vision — the Lacor Hospital is a major institution staffed and run entirely by Ugandans. Similarly, today’s Teasdale-Corti program (endorsed by Teasdale and Corti’s daughter, Dr Dominique Corti), aims to empower researchers in the South.

Knowledge transfer is a two-way street

But the meeting also heard examples of how the Teasdale-Corti partnerships have produced insights of great potential benefit to Canadians.

For example, one Teasdale-Corti project aims to support nurses’ role in the care of HIV/AIDS patients in five sub-Saharan African and Caribbean countries. According to the University of Ottawa’s Dr Nancy Edwards — the Canadian co-lead — the project’s key premise is that “nurses are the backbone of health systems, although they are not prominent in policy-making,” This also resonates in Canada — where nurses also have a critical role to play in policy-making.

Similarly, the University of Calgary’s Dr Craig Stephen says that a project to enhance surveillance of animal health in Sri Lanka, in part to help prevent pandemics, is informing similar Canadian plans to strengthen the role of veterinarians in public health. “Sri Lanka has a very good history of taking information into communities,” he explains, and Canadians have been learning from that example. (For more information: The Human Consequences of Animal Health)

These types of unexpected symmetries are one of the advantages of stressing global partnerships. “Canada is a small country, and we can’t do things on the same scale as some other initiatives,” noted Christina Zarowsky, Manager of IDRC’s Research for Health Equity program. “But we do have this dimension of partnership” that can expand the reach and influence of research by bringing researchers, communities, and policymakers into close contact.

Barriers to be overcome

Transnational teams also face obstacles, however. Beyond the trials of working in multiple languages and across time zones, there are special challenges such as having to pass multiple levels of approval. One widely dispersed team, for example, had to clear its program with 22 separate ethics committees.

Collectively, the teams are working to bring down these types of barriers. Individually, they are exploring an astonishing range of themes — from broad questions of policy, to emerging and sometimes overlooked health management issues.

A collaboration between the University of Ottawa and the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, for example, takes a wide-angle view of global health by using a number of national case studies to consider the potential impact of a renewed emphasis on comprehensive primary health care.

Major diseases such as HIV/AIDS figure prominently, with one project examining the social factors that put migrant workers in China at risk of infection, and another seeking to mobilize schools and communities to promote HIV prevention among youth in rural Nigeria. Other projects tackle less-recognized concerns such as rising rates of childhood obesity in Mexico, or the lack of appropriate pain relief for Thai children being treated for injuries, cancer, or other illnesses.

Meanwhile, a multi-country project dealing with the trauma resulting from violence, conflict, and natural disasters recognizes, as McGill University’s Dr Duncan Pedersen says, that “mental health issues will be a substantial portion of the global health burden in the coming years.”

A well-stocked tool kit

Researchers embrace a wide range of tools. Plans to improve food safety and toxicology testing in the Caribbean, for instance, rest partly on a mobile lab called “Atlantis.” Formerly based in the high Arctic, Atlantis is described by Dr Martin Forde of St George’s University in Grenada, West Indies, as a kind of “traveling circus” that will permanently roam the Islands.

Yet capacity building is more than bricks, mortar, or tent canvas. Brock University’s Ana Sanchez speaks to the importance of the human element when she describes the aims she shares with her Honduran partners. (For more information: Raising the Bar for Microbiologists)

“Our ultimate goal,” she states, “is to create a culture of research.”

Stephen Dale is an Ottawa-based writer.

Published: 25 Jan 2008

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