A side project that could save lives

by Gary Francoeur

Most Canadians take government-funded health care for granted. Sure, it might not be perfect, but people in this country know they can generally receive high-quality treatment when they need it.

But the people of Uganda aren’t so privileged, as Colin Chapman knows all too well. The professor from the Department of Anthropology and McGill School of Environment has spent the last 25 years studying primates in and around Uganda’s Kibale National Park, so he has seen firsthand just how difficult life can be for people living in that country’s rural regions.

“Imagine having malaria and being completely delirious. What they will do is tie you to someone who is healthy and then the two of you will have to take a 15-kilometre bicycle ride down a really bad road to get to the nearest town,” he says.

It is a disheartening scenario, especially considering that an estimated 30 per cent of all deaths among Ugandan children between the ages of two and four are caused by malaria, a disease that is easily treated and prevented with the proper medicine. So when a group of villagers approached Chapman in 2005 for help to establish a local clinic, he rolled up his sleeves and got to work.

Working closely alongside his wife, fellow McGill professor Lauren Chapman (she is the University's Canada Research Chair in Respiratory Ecology and Aquatic Conservation), he was able to secure small grants from several charitable organizations. The couple then approached a group of students from the Canadian Field Studies in Africa program to help raise the rest of the money, which they accomplished by organizing charity dinners, bake sales and other activities. Thanks to these efforts, the Kibale Health and Conservation Clinic opened its doors in 2007, staffed by one full-time nurse, an educator and a visiting doctor.

“It took us two years, but we were able to come up with enough money to build the clinic, and we’ve been running it on donations ever since,” explains Chapman, McGill's Canada Research Chair in Primate Ecology and Conservation.

Professor Colin Chapman is McGill’s Canada
Research Chair in Primate Ecology and Conservation

It has been money well invested. The clinic serves 6,000 patients each year, providing free consultations and vaccinations as well as desperately needed subsidized medical care. Through the clinic, Chapman has also helped to introduce a host of outreach programs to the region, educating villagers about family planning, nutrition, sanitation and conservation as well as the perils of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies. In addition, a total of 50,000 condoms and 8,000 malaria-preventing mosquito nets have been shipped to the area and distributed to local people.

Facilitating this outreach work are McGill interns from the Canadian Field Studies in Africa program, who travel to Uganda annually to help Chapman prepare educational initiatives, produce and distribute informational materials and perform demonstrations.

The clinic, though impressive, has its limits, Chapman readily admits. “It isn’t a full-service hospital by any means. We are able to handle the basics. You can get treatment if you have malaria or diarrhea, but we can’t treat you if you need surgery. But what we can do in that situation is contact someone who has a motorcycle to bring you into town and ensure that everything at the hospital is prepared,” he says.

Now, Chapman and his team are taking their good deeds further on down the road. In 2012, he secured a grant from Grand Challenges Canada to buy a second-hand ambulance and have it shipped to Uganda. The vehicle will serve as a mobile clinic, transporting medical personnel and supplies to villagers who live too far to be treated at the facility itself, effectively increasing the clinic’s reach to over 120,000 patients.

Valerie Schoof, a McGill post-doctoral fellow in anthropology who works closely with Chapman, recently returned from a 10-week stint in Uganda, where she helped to get the initiative up and running.

“The mobile clinic is a very simple idea but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also a brilliant idea. Many people live too far to receive treatment at the main facility, so this is a great way to bring those same services to them,” she says.

In fact, the idea has been so warmly received that Chapman is working with the Uganda Wildlife Authority to introduce similar mobile clinics to all 20 national parks across the country. The Ugandan government has stepped forward and committed an estimated $2.8 million to cover the costs of the program.

Chapman is pleased with this development and excited to see just how big the initiative will grow.

“I think it shows that individuals working long term on a small scale can make a big difference,” he says. “And if you are not involved, you can help those individuals. Most of the time, they don’t need multi-million dollar grants; they can do a lot with $20,000 or $30,000 a year. Those small contributions can make a big difference.”