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Embracing Global Health in University Research and Teaching


By Deirdre Boling, Director of Communications, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine

And Pierre Buekens, MD, PhD, MPH, Dean and W.H. Watkins Professor, Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine

Global Health focuses on health issues that transcend national boundaries and can be addressed by common actions.  Considering health “global” has signified a shift in the way the public health community has viewed health beyond their own national boundaries and represents an interdisciplinary and collective path toward better health and well-being.

At the Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, global health is a term we have fully embraced over the past decade, and we view it as both an educational goal and research imperative in a world that is rapidly changing.

As the oldest school of public health in the U.S., we enjoy a long perspective in public health practice. The school was launched at a time when Yellow Fever was a significant concern in New Orleans. Tulane faculty addressed this and other infectious diseases with ample study and research throughout Latin America. The focus then, however, was often less on collaboration and more on transporting American ideas about health to other countries.

We put a great deal of effort into globalizing the entire school. Global is in the name of four out of our six departments, and all departments and programs are positioned to consider global influences in their classes. This instruction takes the form of case studies and topics from a global point of view as well as opportunities for student research that transcends traditional boundaries. Students are strongly encouraged to go beyond the U.S.-centric view of health, an effort that is complemented by an internationally representative faculty and student body

Unidirectional health and research is a thing of the past. Global health provides room for bidirectional and even multi-sectorial collaboration where faculty and researchers partner with local practitioners to find solutions to benefit populations across borders. All stakeholders have insight to share that could lead to solutions, both locally and globally.

Take Zika virus. Since Brazilian public health officials took notice of the sharp increase in the incidence of microcephaly in newborns, Zika has become not just a local concern, but a global one. It quickly became apparent that the Global North had much to learn from the Global South as this disease became a growing threat.

At Tulane, Dr. Carl Kendall, professor of global community health and behavioral sciences, was already working with established researchers in Brazil on surveillance and evaluation projects related to HIV and leprosy. He and his team wondered how the rise of Zika would affect women’s decision-making about sex and pregnancy. Working with his Brazilian colleagues, he is following a cohort of women in Fortaleza to determine what issues they face surrounding control of their fertility.

Similarly, we instill the concepts of global health to our students. Having university students travel is not unusual, but at Tulane we rely on local researchers and practitioners to provide true context for such educational travel. Students learn directly from these local connections in a collaborative environment, preparing them for future professional interactions in global health. The goal is to get them to see that working with healthcare leaders and researchers in other countries leads to more culturally appropriate solutions while also providing nuance to the skills gained in the classroom.

One such experience is Tulane’s annual summer course in Cuba. The course was a regular feature at Tulane until 2004 when all travel was effectively halted to the island nation. When restrictions eased, Dr. Arachu Castro, Stone Chair of Public Health in Latin America, relaunched the program, which relies heavily on partnerships and collaborations with the National School of Public Health in Havana. Participating students learn directly from the faculty and researchers there, with the ample opportunity to see how Cuba has created an effective public health system without intervention from the U.S.

The expansion of public health to truly embrace colleagues and partners from around the world provides opportunities for the Global South to take a leadership role in the promotion of health worldwide, and for U.S. researchers to learn from perspectives unbiased by traditional assumptions of the Global North. Both sides have a lot to learn from each other.

TAG: Colunas
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