Bay Area non-profit makes big impact in Africa

With practical experience a Bay Area non-profit is making a huge impact in Africa, saving thousands of lives.
January 29, 2014 12:00:00 AM PST
A Bay Area non-profit is making a huge impact in Africa, not with expensive technology, but practical experience. And the result is saving thousands of lives.

Working at busy San Francisco General Hospital, Dr. Ari Johnson treats some of the city's neediest residents. That experience has helped him improve the level of care in a far more challenging environment -- the African nation of Mali where young children and women of child bearing age face a health care crisis.

"Some of the highest rates of childhood mortality and maternal mortality in the world," says Johnson.

Together with his wife, medical student Jessica Beckerman, Johnson helped co-found a non-profit called MUSO, dedicated to improving the health care system in Mali. That's where the couple met as researchers. They say their most frustrating discovery was that many of the resources needed to save lives were already available in the country.

"The tools we use to stop child mortality are extremely inexpensive," says Johnson. "Malaria, we can cure that with like six pills that cost a dollar or two."

"We found ourselves going to a funeral every weekend. And most were for kids or women of reproductive age," says Beckerman. "I think that every funeral we went to during that time, the causes of death were preventable."

They say the main challenge was that patients in remote villages either sought care too late or couldn't reach it in time. Their strategy was to recruit women from local villages to help bridge the critical gap. Over the course several years, the group provided a crash course in patient outreach, from teaching how to spot illnesses and arrange transportation to clinics to performing diagnoses on site.

"Most children who die of malaria die within 48 hours of when they say, 'Mommy, I'm sick,'" explains Johnson. "So that's why reaching patients early, really fast is so important."

And even as the northern part of the country descended into civil war, the MUSO outreach program continued to grow. A recently published study found that child mortality in the area dropped from roughly 15 percent to under 2 percent.

"MUSO workers are now doing rapid antigen diagnostic testing and filling out medical records on cellphones; they're incredible women," says Johnson.

They're employing techniques used at major U.S. care centers like S.F. General. And many of the women, originally trained to provide outreach, now manage and train others. Dr. Johnson and Beckerman also plan to return to continue their work as well.

Information on Project MUSO and the work they're doing in Mali is available here.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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