Health Minister Cites Positive Changes in Guyana’s Health System

Improvements in health are seen in statistics and reports, but their most profound effect is within people. It became apparent where the wealth of a nation truly lives when Dr. Leslie Ramsammy was approached by a father who wanted to thank him for saving his child’s life from malaria. “Health is wealth,” said Dr. Ramsammy, the Minister of Health of Guyana, during a visit to MSH headquarters in Cambridge, MA. “It is the foundation for all other aspects of society—the economy, the history, the culture. Our goal is to match health care development to the faces of the people we are helping.” Second only to Haiti in terms of the lowest per capita income among Latin American and Caribbean countries, Guyana has long struggled to keep health care at the forefront of its national goals. In 1990, more than 60 children per 1,000 were dying before their first birthdays and nearly 90 before their fifth. Although Guyana’s population is small, its battles with infectious disease are epic—only three years ago, more than 5 percent of the Guyana’s citizens were infected with malaria and nearly 3 percent with HIV. But there has been progress. With one of the most underserved populations in the Western hemisphere, Guyana has seen a dramatic, positive transition under Dr. Ramsammy’s leadership. Malaria, a common problem for the Latin American and Caribbean nations, has been reduced from nearly 40,000 cases in 2005 to fewer than 12,000 in 2007. Antiretroviral treatment of HIV & AIDS has increased substantially as a result of private-sector-funded health programs. Increased numbers of cancer screening tests, child vaccinations, and antimalarial bed nets distributed are accomplishments of a nation that the minister claims is taking full advantage of the global health funding afforded to it. MSH works with organizations like the Guyana Ministry of Health to establish strong, sustainable local health programs in developing countries. The Guyana HIV/AIDS Reduction and Prevention (GHARP) Project, for example, works to expand HIV & AIDS prevention, care, and treatment programs by collaborating with the government and addressing the needs of communities. The project is funded by the US Agency for International Development and led by Family Health International. The GHARP Project has increased the number of individuals who have received counseling and testing for HIV to nearly 11,000, established 35 prevention of mother-to-child transmission sites, and trained 150 people in providing palliative care to HIV-infected individuals. By 2009, the project aims to prevent more than 15,000 new infections and integrate HIV & AIDS care and support into primary health care services, with an emphasis on orphans and vulnerable children. Speaking on the importance of the GHARP Project’s private-sector connections, Dr. Ramsammy stated in an earlier interview, “Businesses are known for the dedicated application of energy and expertise to building success, sometimes from virtually nothing. This partnership with the business community is an imperative in the fight, it’s not an option.” Dr. Ramsammy is well qualified for the fight, having earned his PhD at St. John’s University in Queens, New York. After receiving postdoctoral fellowships in neurochemistry and nephrology, he became a professor of medicine at the State University of New York at Stony Brook. Dr. Ramsammy returned to his native country in 1994 and was chosen as the health minister seven years later. His visit to MSH reflects the strong connection developed through international health programs between the organization and the health officials with whom we work.

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