Meredeth Turshen has a passion for the African continent and a long-standing admiration for the indomitable spirit of its people.  A professor with the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, she has written extensively on international health, health care policy, and health issues in Africa. She serves as political co-chair of the Association of Concerned Africa Scholars and treasurer of the Committee for Health in Southern Africa. She is also a contributing editor with the “Review of African Political Economy” and is on the editorial board of the “Journal of Public Health Policy.” Focus writer Pam Orel spoke to Turshen about health issues in Africa and what fuels her passion for her field.

Focus:  Can you talk about the devastating impact of HIV/AIDS on the African continent? 

Turshen: If you look at maps that show the concentration of the disease in different regions, there’s a direct correlation between the incidence of HIV/AIDS in Africa and a past history of military conflict. During the 1980s, when the disease first was noted in the continent, there were several wars between proxies of the United States. and the former Soviet Union; these targeted health services personnel and took away the livelihoods of civilians. Blood transfusions under battlefield conditions added to the spread of the disease. The best hope for these regions is to reconstruct the livelihoods of the residents and reestablish effective regional health care systems – that would be a first step toward stemming the devastation.

Focus: Are there other health care issues that are serious but not as well known?

Turshen: Each year between 800,000 and one million African children die of malaria, and more could be done to provide medicine and preventative measures in areas that are prone to the disease. Global warming isn’t helping: Mosquitoes that carry the disease can now survive in mountainous areas that were formerly too cold to support the insects. Malaria was once common in America’s Mississippi Delta region and largely eradicated there, so it’s possible to stop the needless loss of life.

How has the “brain drain” affected access to health care in Africa?

Turshen: The “brain drain” involves two complex issues: poor working conditions within the health care systems and active recruitment of health care professionals by first world nations. When workers emigrate, the nation they leave loses the costs of training them, which are usually borne by state-funded educational institutions in Africa. First world nations get trained professionals essentially at no cost.

 Focus: What impact have first world economic interests in other areas, such as oil production, had on health care in oil-rich African nations?

Turshen: Social and environmental issues contribute to a range of political, social and health care problems in African nations that have oil reserves. In Nigeria, for example, almost all of the oil is from the delta of the Niger River, which is a poor area, with subsistence fishing and farming.  The region only gets 13 percent of royalties from the sale of oil. Meanwhile, it also suffers from pollution of its fisheries and farmland.

Focus: What are some of the health impacts?

Turshen: I’ve researched this area, and it appears that nobody has a clear picture of how contact with oil products effects human health. More is known about the health effects on animals than on humans. This isn’t just an issue for African oil-producing nations – Alaska, and Louisiana also would benefit from this knowledge.

 Focus: What fuels your passion for African public health issues in the face of challenges that many African nations face?

Turshen: Africans are a very dedicated people.  They are very committed to their communities and countries and it’s wonderful to work with them. I began studying Africa when I was an art student in college – a guest lecturer came in with an African art exhibit and I was hooked. I also was lucky to work with a wonderful mentor, Eduardo Mondlane of Mozambique. [Mondlane founded the Mozambique Liberation Front and is considered a leader of that nation’s independence movement.] When I later worked at the United Nations, we spent a lot of time talking about the country while he was teaching at New York University and I was taking classes.