UMMS faculty forge strong bonds with Liberia

President Sirleaf’s upcoming visit the latest of many connections

By Sandra Gray and Bryan Goodchild

UMass Medical School Communications

May 24, 2012
  A glimpse of UMMS in action in Liberia over the last several years (click slideshow to enlarge images).
  Chancellor Michael F. Collins talks about UMMS-Liberia partnerships.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s visit to UMass Worcester as keynote speaker and honorary degree recipient at Commencement 2012 is just the latest connection in a long association between UMass Medical School and Liberia. For many years, UMMS faculty have been involved in rebuilding the West African country’s health care system as it emerges from the ravages of decades-long civil wars.

“As we applaud the president on her re-election and for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, we reaffirm that our great public medical school remains committed to advancing the health and well-being of her nation,” said Chancellor Michael F. Collins. “Her presence will stand as a testament to the important work our faculty and students do in Liberia and around the globe.”

When she became Africa’s first democratically elected female president in 2005, following the success of Liberia’s unprecedented women’s peace movement, Johnson Sirleaf faced the enormous challenge of rebuilding her war-torn country. High on the president’s list has been repairing the gutted health care infrastructure, which includes only about 100 physicians and 1,000 nurse midwives to care for a population of nearly 4 million people.

Beginning with the initial involvement of a small group of people whose work focused on improving HIV care in Liberia, UMMS nursing and medical faculty returned to Liberia as resources became available. These visits increased dramatically in recent years after the signing of a memorandum of understanding between the University of Massachusetts and the University of Liberia in 2007, and with significant grant funding from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) through the non-profit Higher Education for Development (HED) in cooperation with Health Education and Relief Through Teaching (HEARTT), a foundation which provides overall health care and health training to underdeveloped communities and countries.

Today, a multidisciplinary group of individuals are collectively capitalizing on the strengths of the UMMS academic health sciences center to improve the health care system and health status for all Liberians. Initiatives include:

  • Working with collaborators at the University of Liberia (UL) and Indiana University to create a HED-USAID funded Center for Excellence in Health and Life Sciences at UL, which offers new academic and research programs in biotechnology, public health, nursing and pre-clinical training in medicine and pharmacology. This will include working with the Dogliotti School of Medicine to update a new curriculum and core competencies and to improve instruction in the pre-clinical sciences; restoring the medical library at the School of Medicine, with efforts led by UMMS librarians; and leading Intensive Nursing Leadership Training sessions to improve the quality of science training at the Tubman National Institute of Medical Arts for nurses and midwives; and
  • Partnering with HEARTT to organize a pediatric training program at John F. Kennedy Hospital, the major teaching hospital of the University of Liberia.

“With these partnerships and projects, we are helping Liberia make significant strides toward sustainably rebuilding its health care system so it can provide quality health care to all Liberians,” said Katherine Luzuriaga, MD, professor of pediatrics and medicine and associate provost of global health.

This is the second in a series of UMassMedNow stories leading up to Commencement Day, Sunday, June 3. Tomorrow, read about the backgrounds of three honorary degree recipients, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Boston businessman and philanthropist Joseph O’Donnell and U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, MD, MBA.

Related links on UMassMedNow:
UMMS faculty witness history in Liberia
News Alert: Nobel Peace Prize winner to give 2012 Commencement address
Nobel Peace Prize winner has strong ties to UMMS
Launching medical education studies in Liberia
Library projects lending order to chaos in Liberia
Medical School team rebuilding health care in Liberia