Saving a generation at risk

In the Njombe and Makete districts of Tanzania's Southern Highlands, the HIV/AIDS infection rate among adults is between 18 and 20 per cent, one of the highest in the country. Even more shocking is that the rate more than doubles in those aged 15 to 24.

An international collaboration supported by McGill’s School of Nursing, and by the ingenuity of its students, is helping local health workers turn the tide against this deadly epidemic. “Unlike in the rest of Tanzania, infection rates among young people are rising rapidly in the Highlands,” says Madeleine Buck, Assistant Director of the School. “People there are worried about losing a whole generation.”

In early 2006, Buck travelled to the Southern Highlands to learn more about HIV/AIDS care in the region. She met with members of the Highlands Hope Nurses Consortium, a network of Tanzanian nurses who run programs for people living with the disease. Struck by the dedication of the nurses in the face of enormous challenges, Buck returned to Canada convinced that McGill could help them provide desperately needed health services – and save lives.

The result: McGill Nurses for Highlands Hope (MNHH), an educational exchange program that sends McGill’s nursing students on semester-long internships to the region as part of their graduate studies in global health, and provides scholarships, resources and training opportunities for Tanzanian nurses.

The program gives McGill students like Kristen Gagnon a chance to apply their knowledge and skills to projects that directly benefit people most in need, and to see nursing from an entirely new perspective. Gagnon is working with local nurses to teach peer health educators how to identify common ailments, such as sores, that arise from HIV and give advice on what to do – measures that will save rural citizens hours of travel to clinics for treatment.  

Other student projects have included research into the reasons men decline HIV testing more than women, and a survey on a dangerous knowledge gap about HIV/AIDS among young children that exists despite widespread teaching programs.

The ultimate goal of the program, says Buck, is to improve the lives of Highlands residents living with HIV/AIDS and to support the Highlands nurses as they continue to make a deep and lasting impact on their communities.

“The program really shows that you can do an awful lot with very little,” says Buck. “It certainly helps to have incredibly creative students.”

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Saving a generation at risk
In a Tanzanian region where HIV infection rates are sky-high and rising, a dedicated corps of student nurses fights to turn the tide.