The recent outbreak of ebola underlines just how calamitous infectious diseases can be, and not only for the immediate victims. Viruses are oblivious to national borders, while humans cross them regularly for their work or pleasure or as refugees. KIT alumnus Bart Waalewijn, a tropical doctor stationed in Sierra Leone, was recently forced to return to the Netherlands with his wife and child as a result of the current outbreak.
Reality in the Tropics
Bart Waalewijn: “It feels strange to be back here. I went to Sierra Leone last year to work for CapaCare, a Norwegian medical help organisation. During my training as a doctor here in the Netherlands, I learned the necessity of being both creative and flexible as a doctor in the Tropics. In our work, we have had to deal with a wide range of health problems that tested our skills of improvisation on a regular basis. And then ebola arrived. Our hospital was quickly faced with a growing stream of suspected victims. My colleague, Jurre van Kesteren, and I set up an ebola isolation ward and began to work intensively with the local authorities and the district’s health management team. Luckily, all of the suspected cases we dealt with proved to be false alarms, but only last week one of my colleagues died from the effects of ebola in a different hospital. Eventually, the limited equipment available to us and the growing social unrest forced my organisation to send me back home to the Netherlands. For the moment I am staying with family in the town of Hoofddorp. But we will be going to go back as soon as we can, as there is still so much to be done. The rudimentary medical facilities in Sierra Leone pale in comparison with the high level of healthcare we are used to in the West. It has always been my ambition to work as a doctor in places where medical care is most badly needed. At our hospital in Masanga I was involved not only in the direct medical care of patients but also in the coordination of a surgical training programme. An absolute must here: there are less than 10 surgeons working in this West African country with a population of six million.”
Ebola in the Netherlands?
How should we deal with tropical diseases in the Netherlands? Ebola is an example of a disease that not only has an enormous impact on and claims many victims in developing countries, but also one that has no respect for national boundaries. Global unrest over the possibility of a worldwide ebola epidemic is a timely reminder of just how small the world has become, not to mention the importance of acquiring sufficient knowledge and expertise here in the Netherlands in the areas of tropical medicine and the international dimension of healthcare. Education for improved international healthcare Fortunately, the required knowledge is readily available to us. KIT is an expert in the setting up and improvement of healthcare systems, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, and is constantly engaged in research into how to combat tropical infectious diseases and improve their diagnosis. In addition, every year dozens of doctors and nurses from developing countries are given the opportunity to study at KIT and down through the years many Dutch doctors have been trained and become specialised in a wide variety of aspects related to tropical medicine. This year also saw the introduction of an International Healthcare and Tropical Medicine training programme (AIGT), which is being run by the Dutch Association for Tropical Medicine and International Healthcare (NVTG) in cooperation with KIT.
Barend Gerretsen, medical doctor, KIT consultant and NVTG programme director: “The Netherlands must continue to invest in increasing its knowledge of tropical medicine. Current societal developments are becoming increasingly determined by the irreversible trend towards globalisation. And this trend also has an effect on healthcare. Cross-border medicine is no longer the exception – it is now the rule, also in the Netherlands. The knowledge and expertise acquired by doctors like Bart Waalewijn, both during the NVTG training programme and subsequently through their work in developing countries, is of crucial importance. These doctors often spend a number of years providing healthcare to people in the most difficult of circumstances in countries where healthcare systems are still extremely underdeveloped. When they return, they do so with a wealth of experience in and knowledge of tropical and imported diseases, poverty-related diseases and epidemics, and divergent cultural backgrounds with regard to disease and healthcare. This kind of knowledge is invaluable, particularly to international trading countries like the Netherlands. Although the NVTG programme has been officially recognised by the KNMG (Royal Dutch Medical Association), the government has not yet made a decision regarding future funding of the programme. We at KIT hope that the Dutch government will see fit to safeguard the continuation of the NVTG programme within the next 12 months.”
For more information KIT and public health or to learn more about Bart’s work in Sierra Leone visit www.kit.nl/health or get in touch with KIT Communications department, Tabitha van den Berg, E email@example.com T: 0031 20 568 8438
More about the International Healthcare & Tropical Medicine training program and related organisations