PHWB in Sierra Leone
August 8, 2014

In their second international service trip in six months, the School of Public Health’s student-run Public Health Without Borders (PHWB) group partnered with the University of Maryland Sustainability Engineering team and the Madieu Williams Foundation to serve the small rural community of Calaba Town, Sierra Leone this summer.

From June 10 to 28, students and faculty from PHWB conducted health-related needs assessments and workshops for the Calaba Town community, while the UMD engineering team worked to install a UV water sanitation system and lay the foundation for a secondary school. The work took place at the Abigail D. Butscher Primary School, which was funded through the Madieu Williams Foundation -- a nonprofit founded by former SPH student and professional football player. The PHWB team included SPH undergraduate students Hannah Asmail and Syed Taban, graduate students Rianna Murray and Krishna Bhagat, and Dr. Elisabeth Maring, director of the Global Public Health Scholars Program.

The team responded to concerns about water and hygiene in the community by designing education efforts targeting a group of students who may have to walk up to five miles to reach the school, and who do not have access to clean water or a school nurse during the school day.

“All in all, we had a great experience and found that the community was very welcoming,” said doctoral student Bhagat, graduate assistant for the College Park Scholars Global Public Health Program.

In Sierra Leone, a small West African country about the size of South Carolina, the GDP per capita is estimated at $800 -- only five countries in the world rank lower. Calaba Town is located on the outskirts of Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The community was built after the war by the reconstruction efforts and is home to several ethnic groups that relocated during the war. Four out of every five people in Sierra Leone lives in poverty, and over half of the population is deprived of drinking water.

During their trip, the PHWB team completed more than 50 assessment interviews, as well as hand-washing and oral hygiene workshops with children in the community and oral rehydration therapy workshops with adults. 

Founded in August 2013, PHWB is a student-run organization supported by SPH that aims to assess health disparities affecting disadvantaged communities around the world and create sustainable interventions to alleviate these disparities. This spring, the group raised more than $10,000 – twice its goal amount – to fund their efforts in Sierra Leone. The group's crowdfunding efforts received a major boost from the Dean of the School of Public Health, Dr. Jane Clark, who offered to match contributions totaling up to $2,000 during the final days of the campaign. The SPH community answered the call to "break the Dean's bank" by donating even more than the targeted amount.

Based on what the group learned from the Sierra Leone trip, Krishna said, and with the help of the engineering team, future travel teams may focus on latrine improvements and installing a hand-washing station at the school. The PHWB team is also considering future health related workshops on topics such as keeping containers clean, first aid, malaria, and other relevant health concerns shared by community members.

The trip was PHWB's second intervention this year to improve public health in developing countries. In January, the group traveled to Compone, Peru, to educate residents on the benefits of water purification. 

The trip's timing coincided with the beginning of the Ebola virus outbreak in other parts of Sierra Leone, which the team has watched unfold with heavy hearts since returning. To date, no cases have been reported in Calaba Town or in any of the surrounding communities.

"Our thoughts are with our new colleagues, friends, and the children in Sierra Leone as the Ebola virus continues to mount concern," Dr. Maring said. "When we were there in June, there were a few cases that were only in the eastern part of the country, heightening our awareness of how quickly and dramatically a public health situation can change. For those of us who have traveled, seen this beautiful country and experienced the warm welcoming of a community, we are deeply saddened."

Related Links

Public Health Without Borders blog

Related People
Elisabeth Maring, Graciela Jaschek, Greg Raspanti, Rianna Murray