Research program tackles global health challenges

(Edmonton) In his native Ghana, Yakubu Salifu says, tuberculosis isn’t just a lethal infectious disease, it carries a social stigma bearing the name “ghost cough”—as in the afflicted are among the walking dead.

Overcoming this stigma among the general public and health-care workers has the potential to improve treatment outcomes—a challenge Salifu is working to solve through an intensive research practicum at the University of Alberta.

“Tuberculosis has been a major problem in Ghana since time immemorial. And many people have different cultural beliefs about the cause, and that can affect treatment,” says Salifu, a nursing master’s student at the University of Ghana. “If you believe TB is caused by some spirit or witchcraft or whatever, you may not see any need to take medication from the hospital.”

The stigma of TB has not only led to social isolation, but it can also lead to outright hostility toward patients—affecting their desire to seek treatment, their familial support and even the quality of care from some health workers. And even if patients do seek treatment, they often stop when they first start to feel better, before the drugs have run their course.

Solving this social-cultural and service-delivery problem is a major challenge, but one Salifu is looking to tackle with help from the U of A’s Faculty of Nursing. Salifu is one of 12 University of Ghana students who spent seven weeks in Edmonton on an intensive practicum—researching topics such as breast cancer, midwifery, pregnancy complications and mental health.

It’s part of a decade-long partnership with the faculty’s Global Nursing Office, says Sylvia Barton, associate dean of global health. The program is not only advancing health care in Ghana, but also transforming post-secondary by training the next generation of professors to educate students.

“Ghana’s progress in terms of health systems, development and educating health sciences professionals requires the development of nursing and nurses with an advanced education to help them move into a self-sustaining cycle,” Barton says. “The health of Ghana is going in a positive trend toward increased health, but it does have a way to go.”

Salifu says he’s enjoyed the opportunity to live and work on the U of A campus, including access to the university’s libraries, which are more comprehensive than Ghana’s and add to the value of the practicum experience. He’s enjoyed his experience so much he’s looking to apply for the PhD program in nursing.

“Each one of us from the University of Ghana has become a better researcher because of our time here. I am overwhelmed and very proud to be associated with the University of Alberta.”