September 21, 2009 — One of the critical challenges facing sub-Saharan Africa's struggling health infrastructure is its dwindling health care workforce. Those who remain often work in unsafe conditions and are at high risk of exposure to life-threatening blood-borne pathogens such as HIV, hepatitis B and hepatitis C.
But now the U.Va. Health System's International Healthcare Worker Safety Center is playing a pivotal role in creating a model environment for health workers in one of Africa's most impoverished countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The new Center of Excellence in Occupational Safety for Health Workers at Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa "addresses a critical but often overlooked and underfunded component of health system strengthening and HIV/AIDS relief – protecting health care workers from occupational infections," said U.Va.'s Janine Jagger, director of the International Healthcare Worker Safety Center.
The new center in Africa will provide training to Congolese health care workers in the EPINet sharps injury surveillance program, developed by Jagger in 1991. Data from the program will be used to establish an evidence-based prevention program for Congolese health workers.
Jagger, Elayne Kornblatt Phillips and Ginger Parker of the worker safety center in Department of Medicine traveled to Congo in August for the opening ceremonies of the new occupational safety center at Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital. The hospital, a 300-bed acute-care facility located in one of the most impoverished and densely populated areas of Kinshasa, was founded by former pro basketball player Dikembe Mutombo in 2007 and named in memory of his mother. Mutombo has been widely recognized for his international charitable work, especially in Africa and his home country of Congo.
During their visit, Jagger and Phillips lectured on strategies for African health care worker protection, and Phillips participated in a national symposium on occupational health held in conjunction with the Mutombo Hospital center's opening. Parker conducted hands-on EPINet training workshops for hospital employees. A collaborative research project with the hospital's occupational health director, Dr. Pascal Mputu Mputu, was also launched.
U.Va.'s International Healthcare Worker Safety Center, a worldwide leader in research and education on occupational exposure prevention in health care settings, is partnering with Becton, Dickinson and Co., a global medical device company and a founding supporter of the Occupational Safety Center, and the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in supporting the new occupational safety center.
Jagger, a MacArthur Foundation fellow, comments: "We are privileged to work with the DMF and BD in this pioneering effort. We hope to demonstrate that the high risk to health workers common in African health care settings can be greatly improved with evidence-based policies and administrative support."
In addition to Mutombo, who retired earlier this year after an 18-year career in the National Basketball Association, participants in the ceremonies included Congolese health minister Mwami Mopipi Mukulumany, UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman, and Gary Cohen. Becton Dickinson's executive vice president.
In an NBA.com press release, Mutombo remarked: "The doctors and nurses at the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital are saving lives every day and helping improve health care in the DRC, which has been ravaged by more than a decade of war and disease." He called the new occupational safety center an "important milestone" in training health care workers to protect both patients and themselves from the spread of disease.