Africa: A World of Health Innovation...

3 April 2019

Preparing for my first international conference was exciting, but it was also stressful. I wasn't sure what to expect. I just knew that Portuguese is spoken in Cape Verde so I kept wondering if the locals can speak some English at all. Should I have googled a few Portuguese words just in case? I was anxious about the food, the weather and a million other things. But I was so excited and proud to be going to cover such a huge and significant event. I was a little disappointed though that I had to travel to another continent to get to another African country. On arriving at the airport we stood on the line for about an hour waiting for our visas on arrival.

On the first day some WHO staff and media colleagues traveled to Santiago, an hour away from the capital city, Praia, where we visited the regional Santiago Norte hospital and a local clinic called Posto De Saude Achada Lem. There, we were given a tour around the hospital and had a chance to interact with patients. We asked a few questions about their lives, what had brought them to hospital and whether they were happy with the services. One of the challenges was the fact that hardly any locals could speak English and we needed a translator, which sort of took the fun out of getting to know people.

We then went to Dr Agostino Neto Hospital's neonatal ward with babies that are born prematurely. We also met mothers who donate milk in one of the first and oldest milk banks in Africa. I spoke to Claudia Gomes, who told me she was happy to be able to help other children who need breast milk.

When the conference started a day later, I already had a good background of the country's health system. I was particularly impressed by the presentation the hospital gave on how the country is successfully using telemedicine and how it is contributing to the reduction of inequalities in access to health, in Cape Verde.

The first WHO Africa Health Innovation Challenge was launched on the first day of the conference and the innovators that made it to the top 30 were showcasing their work. I interacted with most of them.  It was refreshing for to see young people's commitment to solving Africa's problems, especially related to health. Every innovation blow me away.  Dr Misaki Wayengera from Uganda is addressing Ebola, Twambilili Phanga, from Malawi is empowering young girls to take charge of their sexual health as well as promote rights, and education, while a Somali radio station deals with mental health and listeners can call in and have their voices disguised, making it easier for anyone to tell their story.

Getting insight into the challenges of health care in South Sudan was to me the highlight of the WHO presentations which made me realise why such forums are important and why more needs to be done to achieve UHC. I could not hold back my tears when Dr Solomon Mayo, the National Coordinator for Community Health in South Sudan was on the podium talking about cholera. I could not believe it when he said only 10% of the population has access to basic sanitation leaving the rest of the population to resort to open defecation. He presented the short history of the newest country in the world and the challenges they face. Of all the speakers at the conference, his speech touched me the most. I had a chance to chat to him shortly after his presentation and he said he was positive the country will improve the lives of the people of South Sudan.

I found the people of Cape Verde to be very friendly even though the language was a huge barrier for me. Most people speak Kriol and consider Portuguese to be their second language. Even though most of the people I came across struggled to speak any English including the hotel and restaurants they were still nice enough to try.

On my last day in Cape Verde we walked to the Quebra Canela beach where we ate at the Linha d'agua, a small but elegant restaurant, that overlooks the sea, the view was amazing and so was the food.

Overall I enjoyed my first WHO conference but I still think it should be structured differently the next time around. There were many panel discussions that went on for almost an hour without any interaction from the audience inside the venue and only nearly 10 minutes would be dedicated to everyone to ask questions and comment. I find this problematic because the room was full of people from different countries and I would like to believe that they had many brilliant ideas and solutions for the problems facing our continent. The people on stage may be specialists but the point of the conference is to try find solutions and what better way to find solutions than to speak to the ordinary people going through the challenges every day and not listen to experts talk about figures and all sorts of statistics.

I have learnt that if you are to cover a conference, you need to remember people's names and faces. You should have a background about the countries and the topics you want to ask questions about.There is hardly any room for mistakes, you should always be ready as you might get only one chance to interview a person. I found the conference to be well-organised and all the delegates were easy to approach. I am proud to have represented at the conference, It was good to see and know how people around the continent appreciate what we do.

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