UMMS: A history of helping in Liberia

By Lisa M. Larson
UMass Medical School Communications

As UMass Medical School launches a relief effort in Ebola-stricken Liberia, it will build on its close ties to the West African country, having formed a relationship eight years ago to help restore a fragile health care system decimated by civil war. When the country emerged from strife in 2003, it had only 50 practicing physicians for its more than 3 million people, and its medical education system, desperately needed to train and produce more health care workers, was in ruins.

“For years, colleagues at our medical school have nurtured relationships in Liberia that have helped to improve patient care and health care education in that country,” said Chancellor Michael F. Collins. “We have practiced there on a regular basis; our residents have gone over; even our librarians are engaged in improving the library at the University of Liberia.

“The commitment so many of our colleagues have made to improving the health and education of people so far away reflects the core mission of our institution to advance the health and well-being of not only the people of the commonwealth, but of the world.”

Early UMMS involvement in Liberia focused on AIDS control through building community-based capacity for HIV diagnosis, care and treatment, with particular emphasis on rewriting the country’s HIV care guidelines. Soon after, with funding through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), UMMS partnered with the University of Liberia to expand its work in Liberia, helping to rebuild the AM Dogliotti Medical School. UMMS also provided faculty for clinical care and clinical training at the national referral hospital, JFK Medical Center.

In order to recruit the large number of clinical faculty necessary to sustain the training programs, UMMS formed a collaboration of U.S. academic medical centers who were already working in Liberia. In 2006 the Academic Collaborative to Support Health Care Education in Liberia was established, comprising Boston Children’s Hospital; Mt. Sinai Medical School; the University of Florida Medical School; the University of Maryland Medical School; and Vanderbilt University, in addition to UMass Medical School. Since 2009, the UMMS-led Academic Collaborative to Support Health Care Education in Liberia has sent more than 100 resident physicians and faculty members to JFK Medical Center to teach and train Liberian medical students.

“We have a longstanding relationship with the country of Liberia and have been a partner in rebuilding health care systems that were destroyed in the country’s civil war,” said Katherine Luzuriaga, MD, professor of molecular medicine, pediatrics and medicine, director of the UMass Center for Clinical and Translational Science, and  vice provost for clinical and translational research.

Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf acknowledged the work of UMMS when she gave the keynote speech at the UMMS 2012 Commencement ceremonies. “So many of your students and faculty have taken time away from their own lives to travel to Liberia to provide life-saving care to ensure a healthy population,” she said, in her June 3, 2012, address in Worcester. “My people and my country appreciate all that you do.”

Most recently, UMMS and its academic partners have been working with the Liberian Post Graduate Medical Council; Liberia’s Ministry of Health and Social Welfare; the Clinton Health Access Initiative; and the World Bank to design and implement graduate medical education programs in the areas of pediatrics, internal medicine, OB/GYN and surgery.

These training programs were implemented in September 2013, but came to a halt due to the Ebola outbreak.

In August, touched by the growing numbers of health care workers stricken with Ebola through treating patients, UMMS faculty organized a drive for personal protection equipment and other medical supplies to be sent to Liberia. The UMMS Office of Global Health has made two shipments of personal protective equipment to date, thanks to the contributions of numerous local organizations.