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Dr Moeti: First woman WHO Regional Director for Africa

The MidweekSun Admin

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Give us some background on you and WHO.
I joined WHO’s Africa regional office in 1999 and served as deputy regional director, assistant regional director, director of non-communicable diseases, WHO representative for Malawi, and co-ordinator of the Inter-Country Support Team for South and East African countries. Before joining the WHO, I worked with UNAids as Team Leader of the Africa and Middle East Desk in Geneva (1997-1999). I also served as Unicef’s regional health advisor for East and Southern Africa; and with Botswana’s Ministry of Health as a clinician and public health specialist.

You have been vocal about the shrinking donor funding. How can African countries fill in the gaps and sustain progress in healthcare?
It was inevitable that we would get here. Countries are developing, their economies are growing. This means that as countries graduate into middle-income states, they need to smartly invest more of their resources in health. If donor funding is reducing, African countries need to be working on ways to improve their own revenue. While they are trying to seal the gap, they need to work better on areas that need emphasis. It is not as if the money is not there, it may not be getting into the public purse. Therefore, we need to talk about flight of capital and address cases of some international donors not paying taxes to the degree that they should.
At the same time, instead of lamenting and worrying about the flight of donor money, countries need to invest much more effort in getting their own revenue from areas like taxation. I should say, Botswana has done well over the years, government expenditure on health has increased substantially. It is one of the few African countries to have reached the Abuja Target, with 15% of total government expenditure allocated to healthcare.

With a continent that is heavily populated with young people, what is the involvement of youth in an agenda like Universal Health Coverage?
We need to deal with the awkwardness of having old and young people in the room to talk about health or at least engage young people where they are and bring their views and voice into decision-making. At the WHO, we are learning to do this. Our adolescent health programme has not been among the best funded or our strongest and we are deciding that it deserves this added emphasis because it deals with the biggest demographic in the region.
We are therefore recruiting young people to change how we are working and asking our adolescent health programme to work with all the other programmes, so that those working on HIV/Aids, sexual and reproductive health, non-communicable diseases, and health systems development take on board the needs of young people.

Talk about WHO’s renewed approach to dealing with health emergencies and outbreaks.
Lessons from the Ebola outbreak in West Africa revealed critical gaps in WHO’s emergency preparedness. We are therefore adjusting our programmes to have a smart technical focus in line with the region’s priorities, basing interventions on evidence and lessons learned from experience. We have now reformed our Health Emergencies Programme and are part of a global WHO approach of one emergency programme, one workforce, one budget and one line of accountability.
That means, for example, that my director, who is the team leader in Africa, does not need to get permission from me for everything he has to do. One of the big changes we have put in place is that this director can work directly with the executive director in Geneva and the WHO country representative to make decisions.
This is the approach we used to address recent disease outbreaks in Africa such as the yellow fever outbreak in Angola. We are also working with other partners in a structured way and co-ordinating the work that needs to be done between the three levels to provide better support.

How prepared are African countries to deal with emerging issues like antimicrobial resistance and disease outbreaks?
I genuinely think African countries (maybe not all of them) are better prepared on the whole than they were pre-Ebola outbreak.
But I also think we are not quite there yet. Health systems are still very weak. If you look at an objective tool like the International Health Regulations, there are very many gaps in African countries.
With data collected from about 12 of the 47 countries, we have more evidence-based information about the existing gaps and what needs to be done.
Countries have also begun putting together co-ordination mechanisms on the so called emergency operation centres, where you can deal with one of the key problems when something arises:
“How do I have an effective co-ordination nod which directs the actions from investigations, confirmation, response, surveillance and monitoring to see that an outbreak is being brought under control?”
That is one more step to being better prepared. We have also seen improvement in the laboratory capacity to quickly diagnose some of the organisms causing outbreaks. At the end of the day, what needs to happen is that if an outbreak is starting somewhere and the infected person goes to a clinic anywhere in a country, you need to have in the health worker diagnostic capacity to pick up that something unusual is happening, report that and trigger investigations that will conclude what is going on.

Research has not been explored especially when you focus on Africa’s role. How can we see more research by ‘Africa for Africa’?
Africa has paradoxically been quite involved in global health research but much of this has been invested in by outside entities and the agenda of this research has been determined by the funders of the research.
We need our own domestic investment in research which will enable the countries to define their own research priorities and, most importantly, to work with the outcomes of those researches to inform policy and service delivery.
I have seen the private sector becoming more and more engaged in playing its role in healthcare.
And we must admit that there are a lot of opportunities to harness the resources, skills and experiences of private sector. However, I think it needs to be done within a framework of clear alignment with national priorities and for us, because this is the Sustainable Development Goals era, clear alignment with the idea of driving towards equity, better quality services access but also emphasising affordability.

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Know Your Specialist

Caroline Gartland speaks on Children and Mental Health

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Tell us about yourself and your background
I’m originally from the UK but have been in Botswana for eight years so this is now home! I have a Combined Honours degree in Psychology an MSc in Mental Health and have had a pretty varied career.
I started off working with offenders doing rehabilitation programmes; went on to support the victims of domestic violence then ended up working in Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services for the National Health Service.
I’ve done a lot of work, mainly voluntary, in different fields since being in Botswana but my passion is now Early Childhood Mental Health.

What does your work entail?
Early childhood mental health is mainly working with parents, caregivers and teachers to help them understand how children develop and the best ways to support their mental health and brain development as they grow. It’s about providing training and opportunities for families to bond with their children and introducing new ways of playing and interacting.

What sparked your interest in early childhood mental health?
Quite simply, having my own children! My daughter was born five years ago and I was fascinated watching her develop and grow. It occurred to me that the younger you begin to consider mental health and provide tools for resilience against life’s adversities, the better outcomes you are likely to have.
I began reading everything I could get my hands on, and completed a diploma in Infant Mental Health. I’ve worked down the lifespan but I feel I’m now where I belong, working with babies and young children.

What mental health issues have you observed in children in Botswana?
Mental Health is still stigmatised around the world and Botswana is no exception. Most people immediately think of mental illness, but mental health is about so much more; we all have mental health and some days we are fine and able to deal with life’s challenges and some days we need more support and tools under our belt to help us cope.

Young children can experience mental health problems. Anxiety is a common one, but we are more likely to focus on the behaviour we see rather than how the child is feeling. An anxious child who refuses to go to school may be labelled as ‘difficult’ or ‘naughty’ but what they are expressing is a painful emotion that they need help dealing with.

Describe one thing you find fulfilling and challenging about working in this industry.
Working with children and families is a pleasure and a privilege. To make life a little bit easier for someone is all that matters, you don’t have to be out there saving the world to make a difference.
My major challenge is time. I would love to do more, I’d love to do an MSc in play therapy and a couple of other therapeutic techniques I’ve come across in Europe but that gets put on hold as I focus on my own family and business.

Can you share an anecdote about how mental health consultation works?
I think that education, understanding and connection are the three keys to giving a child the best start in life. Led by that, SensoBaby provides classes in the community for parents and caregivers to connect with their infants.

We offer workshops on parenting and play to foster understanding of child development and wellbeing and we are available to troubleshoot specific problems an individual or agency has with the young children in their care or the systems they have in place. When it comes to individual parents, mostly what they need is to feel heard, supported and guided in their parenting choices.
You can read all the baby books in the world but they won’t give you the answers you need for your child, through responsive parenting and connection, you’ll find you have the solutions you need.

What advice do you have for child-care providers or early childhood teachers who are at their wits’ end over a child’s challenging behaviour but don’t have access to a consultant?
Empathy is an important and undervalued skill – the ability to consider another’s viewpoint. What is that child feeling? Their behaviour might be challenging and hard to deal with but often the root cause is an unmet need. There’s a famous quote from an American Clinical Psychologist, “The children who need love the most, will ask for it in the most unloving ways.”

Does a mother’s mental health affect her foetus? How important would you say is paying attention to women’s well being during pregnancy as with their physical well being?
100% yes. It is so important to support a woman’s wellbeing during pregnancy. As an example, if the mother experiences significant stress and rising levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) during pregnancy, the foetus will be affected and in some cases will be more sensitive to stress in childhood or later in life.

Pregnant women and new families (Dads as well!) deserve nurturing care themselves and shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support. SensoBaby run FREE monthly coffee mornings to support pregnant and new mothers because we understand the importance of maternal wellbeing.

Do smart phones and television make our children mentally ill as is often purported?
I don’t think technology is always the villain it’s made out to be. The key is in the relationship with that technology. Moderate use of TV’s and smart phones are fine, as long as they aren’t a substitute for outdoor play, imaginative play and meaningful interactions. If a child is crying or upset and we hand them a device to keep them quiet then we have missed an important opportunity for connection, helping them process what is going on and supporting them to calm down and settle themselves.

Now, I know you are involved in an exciting programme that helps caregivers and children to bond and get the children off to the best start in life through play. Can you say a little bit about that work and just how you are seeing it play out?
SensoBaby is our baby; a project born from passion and a desire to support families in Botswana. We offer play-based classes for children and their caregivers that are underpinned by the principles of child wellness as well as early foundations for learning.

When you provide developmentally appropriate opportunities to play, you learn so much about your child. That understanding and observation builds strong connections, which will form the basis of that child’s future relationships and self esteem. Play is so much more than ‘a fun activity.’

We offer a number of trainings and workshops for parents, nannies and community stakeholders and hope to increase our offerings this year. Our community partnerships and voluntary programmes have been successful so far and we hope to see more impact in 2018.

We currently serve the Gaborone community but would like to expand throughout Botswana as opportunities arise. The response to SensoBaby has been fantastic so far and we can’t wait to see how far we can go with the concept!

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Know Your Specialist

Terence Mohammed explains intricacies of clinical trials

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What does a lab manager do?
As BHP laboratory manager, I am responsible for providing an oversight in the technical operations of the laboratory, including the clinical trials processing and testing labs. As part of the laboratory management, I also provide leadership in planning, implementing and completion of research activities and to ensure that laboratory operations and data generated is in accordance with Good Clinical Laboratory Practice. The lab manager is also expected to provide an oversight on the laboratory quality management system and laboratory expenditure.

Describe your career trajectory. How did you get to where you are now?
I joined BHP in 2007 as a laboratory research assistant. I worked for two years in various BHP clinical trials for diagnosing and monitoring of HIV/AIDS in clinical trials participants. In 2009, I got transitioned to the BHP research laboratory to work as a research fellow where I got assigned to work on various basic science projects. In 2014, I worked as a research laboratory coordinator where I was mainly involved in day to day routine management of the research laboratory activities including; conduct of research projects, preparation of education activities and mentoring of new research fellows, students and interns. In 2015, I got promoted to the position of deputy laboratory manager where I assisted the lab manager in overseeing the technical operations of the lab. In 2017, I got promoted to the position of lab manager.

What’s a typical day/week at the Botswana Harvard Partnership (BHP) for you?
I participate in a lot of weekly meetings; laboratory management and departmental meetings. I am also expected to attend meetings for the various clinical trials which we provide laboratory services to. These include local site meetings and international conference calls with study principal investigators and sponsors. I also review and authorise laboratory orders ensuring continuous operation of laboratory work and within allocated budgets. In addition, I also allocate time to walk around the different laboratory departments on a regular basis in order to interact with staff and learn more about their challenges. This facilitates discussions on how to improve our laboratory operations and working environment.

What are the main health and safety issues for lab technologists?
Exposure to blood, bodily fluids and tissues, which may contain infectious agents and also exposure to ultra-cold materials such as liquid nitrogen and dry ice. However, all necessary laboratory safety trainings are mandatory and staff has access to personal protective equipment including lab coats and gloves which are a requirement for certain tasks.

What aspects of your role do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the daily interaction with researchers in the field of HIV/AIDS, both locally and internationally. It makes me proud to be part of a team that is working towards ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic in our region as it has decimated the population for over two decades now. With our work, I hope Batswana become increasingly cognisant of the task ahead of us and unify to bring an end to the pandemic.

What would you say the biggest challenge in your field is? Discuss one thing in particular?
Supply of laboratory reagents and consumables can be challenging as sometimes we experience supply stock-out and delays in delivery.

On a basic level, what skills does your job demand?
A lab manager should be able to organise and run effective meetings. It is important to set up an effective meeting agenda and be able to assign key action items to staff
-To be able to communicate effectively and create a positive atmosphere in the working environment. It is also important for the lab manager to be able to motivate staff and also be approachable to staff whenever required.
-A lab manager is expected to have leadership skills in order to provide direction to team members and ensure that the institution goals are effectively met.
-To be able to manage budgets and always be alert to ensure that the laboratory current spend does not exceed target spend.

You have done some research on HIV-1c gp120 in recently and chronically infected individuals in Botswana. For starters what is HIV-1c gp120? A brief background on the research and what the findings were?
Gp 120 stands for glycoprotein 120. This is a protein found on the outer surface of HIV and it used by the virus to enter human cells thereby causing infection. Previous research has shown that gp120 characteristics and properties could be susceptible to change overtime during the progression of the disease. Therefore, we used two groups of study participants at various stages of disease progression (i.e. recently and chronically infected) to see if there are changes in structure and properties of gp120 during the course of the disease. This research highlighted the need to further investigate gp120 in order to get information that maybe useful in the development and designing of an effective vaccine

What advice would you give someone interested in becoming a research fellow?
I would advise them to read a lot in their field of interest and also be aggressive enough to seek opportunities of attachment to a relevant institution. Furthermore, they should seek to interact with experts in the field in order to keep themselves in the loop should a research fellowship become available.

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