Student receives Fulbright U.S. Student Award to create health program in West Africa

SAN ANTONIO (May 8, 2014) – Samy Bendjemil, an M.D./M.P.H. student at The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, has been awarded a 2014-2015 Fulbright U.S. Student Award to set up a community health club in Burkina Faso, a West African country north of Ghana.

The Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program of the United States. He will represent the United States as a cultural ambassador while he is overseas. Bendjemil said the Fulbright program is unique because it challenges applicants to design a project that brings together different cultures to share their unique skills in order to make a positive impact on the community.

The impetus for Bendjemil’s award and his upcoming work in Burkina Faso began in August 2012 when he attended the General Assembly of the International Federation of Medical Student Associations in Mumbai. At this assembly, Bendjemil met Dr. Moumini Niaone, a doctor with family living in the rural village of Dierma.

“We talked a lot about the health conditions in his country, and the effects that poor sanitation practices and a lack of education have on the burden of disease,” Bendjemil said. “I was deeply impressed with the selfless devotion that Dr. Niaone has to the future of his country and was inspired to take a year off from studies to develop a health education program for his village.”

He laid the groundwork for his Fulbright award last November and December during a global health program in Burkina Faso. With guidance from Ruth E. Berggren, M.D., director of the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics (CMHE) at the UT Health Science Center, and Jason Rosenfeld, M.P.H., an assistant director at the center, he collected baseline data of hygiene and sanitation through a Knowledge Attitude and Practice Survey, which is an adaptation of surveys used by the CMHE for similar projects in Ethiopia, Haiti and Guatemala. Translations were made into French and Bissa.

Dr. Berggren, who is Bendjemil’s mentor, said, “Samy has worked closely with the Center for Medical Humanities & Ethics ever since he started medical school. It has been our joy to watch him flourish as a developing professional, and to work closely with him through global health, community service learning, and leadership activities in the center’s student advisory council.”
It was a natural for him to incorporate all that he has learned from the center about community engagement and community health clubs into his Fulbright application, she said.

“Samy’s Fulbright is a first for our center, and while his significant achievement will shape the direction of his medical career, it is also tangible evidence of the center’s success in catalyzing scholarship in global health. We are deeply proud of Samy and grateful to the philanthropists and faculty who helped us build the programs that made his achievement possible. We hope this award is the first of many for our global health education program,” Dr. Berggren said.

Through the center, Bendjemil traveled last year to Dierma, a rural village of 3,500. He met with community leaders and members who he found were motivated to learn how they can reduce the incidence of preventable disease.

“Our plan is to implement a community-led health and development program using a community health club model. This model has been successful in impoverished communities of other countries including Haiti, Rwanda and Zimbabwe,” he said. “We will use the survey results for the development of curriculum. We must identify barriers to education, brainstorm solutions to these barriers, and share the importance of education for community development and a better quality of life.”

Bendjemil visited approximately 70 of the 100 compounds in the village. He learned the residents had little knowledge of disease transmission, and there is no concept of proper sanitation and hygiene in Dierma.

“Almost all cooking areas were outside without any barrier from livestock or flies. It was very common to see animals defecating in the eating area. Residents drank and ate from pots with dozens of flies flying between them. Many compounds did not use a latrine, and those that did were used by more than 50 people,” he said.

Access to education, which is an essential component of community development and sustainability, is one of the biggest challenges in the village, Bendjemil said.

“Primary and secondary education in Burkina Faso is not free, and families often cannot afford to send their children to school. The vast majority of people have no concept of why education is important. Our project will blend education promotion into the existing community health club curriculum used by our CMHE and Africa AHEAD (Applied Health, Education and Development) so that participants can discuss the importance of education for their village and identify barriers and solutions.”

This project could not be successful without the support of the community leaders in Burkina Faso, Dr. Niaone and Dr. Nicolas Meda of the University of Ouagadougou, and from the UT Health Science Center, including Dr. Thomas Matthews, assistant dean for students, and Dr. Florence Eddins-Folensbee, vice dean for education, in the School of Medicine Dean’s Office as well as Dr. Berggren and Mr. Rosenfeld from the CMHE, he said.

Bendjemil believes the program will be a first experience in education for many of the village residents. He hopes they will begin to feel empowered by their increased knowledge and begin to recognize the importance of education.

“It has been demonstrated that community-led education and development programs are beneficial in creating sustainable change in rural, impoverished communities,” he explained. “We are all very excited about the potential the community health club model has to reduce the burden of infectious disease in Burkina Faso.”


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