To save lives in his native Africa, Zelalem Haile had to break free.
Haile, a PhD candidate in the WVU School of Public Health, is from Eritrea, a country bordering Sudan and Ethiopia in northeast Africa.
The Eritrean government shut down the nation’s only accredited university, where Haile taught, and began requiring everyone between ages 18 to 45 to join its national service, essentially its military.
The government soon opened several small military colleges, but none had libraries or Internet access.
Exactly—how can anyone do research?
This was 2006, and Haile knew it was time to leave. But leaving wouldn’t be easy.
Over a three-year period, Eritrea repeatedly denied his requests to study abroad
in the United States.
He had already earned his master’s degree in anthropology at the University of Florida, but because the Eritrean government footed the bill for his education, he had a responsibility to stay in Eritrea and “pay his dues” as a lecturer.
“I had to devise my own way of leaving the country,” Haile said. “Eventually, I was invited to a training workshop in Kenya. I went. But instead of flying back, I went to the United States.”
Risky move. But necessary.
Fleeing to the United States would also result in a career change for Haile. He thought that perhaps anthropology wasn’t the best way to make an impression.
Fully aware of the health disparities in his native continent, Haile shifted gears to public health. He enrolled at Ohio University and earned a master’s degree in public health before coming to WVU.
And while Haile may never get to return to Eritrea, he hopes his research will shape policy and save lives in that region of the world.
His work focuses on maternal and children’s health in Africa, home to the highest mortality rates in the world.
The solution to combating that problem is rather simple, according to Haile’s research: let women have a voice in making their own healthcare decisions.
Too often, women’s decisions to receive proper immunizations are made solely by the husbands or partners. “It’s cultural,” Haile said, “but some culture needs to change.”
FINDINGS CAN LEAD TO CHANGE
In November, the_ Journal of Community Health_ published a study coauthored by Haile looking at tetanus toxoid immunization for pregnant women in Kenya. The study found that tetanus toxoid immunization programs are underused in developing countries such as Kenya.
The main factors contributing to having been sufficiently immunized against tetanus were lower birth order, higher household wealth index, women’s employment, making joint health-related decisions with a partner, and a higher number of antenatal care visits.
In other words, lower socioeconomic status and having partners exclusively make health decisions were factors leading to lower rates of immunization and higher rates of maternal and neonatal mortality.
“I hope they use our findings to implement policies relating to utilization and coverage of immunizations,” Haile said.
“Each year, over a quarter of a million women die in Africa from pregnancy-related complications, and these complications are preventable. We have the innovations to prevent these conditions, but the question is, ‘How do we implement them and translate scientific findings into policy and practice?’”
Working as an anthropologist in Africa, Haile knew he could contribute to the field of public health when he helped a social marketing group educate residents about condoms and sexual health. Haile interviewed sex workers and inquired about their challenges and how they became part of the commercial sex industry.
At Ohio University, Haile served as coordinator for the African Health Initiative, an organized effort and commitment by its African Studies Program to understand health-related issues on the African continent.
A PATH FORWARD
Currently, Haile is working on his dissertation, which examines mother-to-child transmission of HIV in 26 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
He will graduate in 2014. Haile has no regrets about fleeing to the United States, except that he should’ve done it sooner.
“We have the answers and the innovation. We just need to figure out how to translate innovation into practice.”
“I still talk to my sisters over there, and they told me I made a huge mistake in coming back in 2002 after finishing my master’s,” he said. “I feel like I lost three years of my life when I went back to Eritrea.”
Still, Haile is set on improving the health of Africa’s people, even if he can’t go back to his native country. He’ll do it from here, with the help of his wife, an Eritrean who is pursuing her master’s degree in public health at Ohio University.
“We have the answers and the innovation,” he said. “We just need to figure out how to translate innovation into practice.”