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Israeli doctors bring expertise to Africa

  • IsraeliDoctors
Ori and Britta Shwarzman are Israeli doctors who have lived, worked, and raised their children in the rainforests of Ghana, while establishing a mobile clinic that has changed the nature of healthcare in that region.
by TALI FEINBERG | Feb 28, 2019

They are just two of the many Israeli healthcare professionals that have been working for decades in Africa to improve healthcare, train doctors, perform life-saving surgeries, and bring in much-needed equipment. Pioneers in their field, they are all passionate about conquering the overwhelming health challenges on our continent.

Just this week, the United Nations honoured a group of Israeli doctors who have operated on thousands of children with heart disease . Save a Child’s Heart accepted the UN Population Award on Tuesday for saving young lives, especially in war-torn and developing countries

This commitment from doctors can be traced back to former Prime Minister Golda Meir’s visit to a number of African countries in 1958, where she pledged Israeli help to find solutions for severe challenges. Since then, the Israeli government, private Israeli companies, individuals, and non-profit organisations have all contributed their expertise.

The Shwarzmans work in the rainforests of the Ashanti region. Ori and his German-born wife, Britta, met in Ghana and fell in love with the country. In 1999 they returned with their two-year-old daughter, Amarell, to work voluntarily for two years as general practitioners.

The couple realised that although primary care was available, there were no specialists to deal with specific ailments. This led them to the idea of establishing a professional mobile clinic.

“When we started the mobile clinic, there were only four practicing psychiatrists, and one paediatric surgeon in Ghana to support a country of 25 million inhabitants,” they say. After training in Israel, they returned to Ghana in 2007 and their Gye Nyame specialist mobile clinic was born.

By this time, the Shwarzmans had three children, with whom they lived in one of the small villages without running water or electricity. “We learned the language, Twi. Ghanaians are always very happy to meet Jews, the chosen people, and to hear that Jerusalem is not in heaven, but real.”

The pair are passionate about their work because it is so challenging and rewarding.

“We work exclusively in remote areas, where people cannot afford to see a specialist. The moment you realise that you can treat a psychotic patient with simple medication in the rainforests, or you succeed in saving a baby with a simple operation in a remote missionary hospital, then yes, we love what we are doing.”

Four years on, the Gye Nyame mobile clinic has become self-sufficient enough to function on a daily basis without them. Management has been handed over to the now experienced local team, but both doctors return every month to renew medicines and equipment, supervise the clinic and perform surgical operations, run seminars and workshops, and manage fundraising.

“Our dream would be to be able to work and live in Ghana full time once again, not needing to worry about how we will survive the next year. We would like to establish a new mobile clinic in the even poorer north of Ghana, connect with a missionary hospital, and start teaching teams of local professionals. We would like to enter more West African countries, like Sierra Leone and Liberia,” they say.

Professor Zvi Bentwich is the President and founder of the Nala Foundation, which works to eradicate curable diseases and break the poverty cycle. He founded the first AIDS centre in Israel in the mid ‘80s.

Bentwich’s ground breaking research uncovered the link between neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) – particularly intestinal worms – and immune issues. He realised that if intestinal parasites were eradicated, the likelihood of HIV/AIDS infection would drop dramatically as well.

“Quite early on, it became clear to me that these diseases are so common and widespread that it is almost impossible to overcome them against a background of poverty and neglect,” he says.

“The policy at that time was mass drug administration, but if you don’t change the environment, people just get re-infected. I thought I could make a difference by addressing behaviour change through intensive health education and community engagement.”

He believes that in order to have a successful and sustainable programme, the community itself must lead the way. “We work with community partners to identify blocks for community health and to target the different layers within a community that can collaborate to work towards complete elimination of these diseases.”

This approach has had startling success, with populations keeping these diseases under control, and Bentwich’s model of intervention now being adopted nationwide in Ethiopia.

Dr Morris Hartstein is Director of Oculoplastic Surgery at Yitzhak Shamir Medical Center. While visiting Ethiopia on holiday, he started treating eye ailments. He now travels there regularly to run clinics during which time he sees up to 500 patients. He also brings with him hundreds of pairs of donated eyeglasses, and large quantities of eye drops and medications.

“So far, I have personally examined almost 3 000 people there. I arrange cataract surgery, and treat kids with sight threatening eye infections. I have done lots of complex surgery under tough conditions,” he says.

Hartstein has brought 13 doctors to Israel for training, and is currently training someone in his specialty, oculoplastics. “He will be only the third trained person in Ethiopia for 110 million people. I have also helped to start a programme that provides one meal a day for nearly 500 malnourished Jewish children in Gondar [a city in northern Ethiopia].”

He said that while at a conference in Addis Ababa with President Reuven Rivlin last May, he was shocked to see hundreds of Israeli organisations, both companies and NGOs, all working in Africa. “Many have been doing it for years. Israelis are doing so many revolutionary things, from medicine, to infrastructure, to agriculture – and all with little fanfare, they just do it,” Hartstein says.

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