Renewing ties with Africa that go back to Livingstone

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THE Make Poverty History march, the Final Push gig, the celebrities... and of course the G8 summit. Scotland, and Edinburgh, are centre stage in terms of world attention and the bid to lift Africa out of poverty.

It's more than apt, as for centuries Scotland has had ties with Africa - mostly thanks to missionary Dr David Livingstone, who revealed the heart of the "dark continent" to Victorians.

Indeed the Zambian town of Livingstone was founded in 1905 with most of its first white inhabitants from Scotland, and the city of Blantyre in Malawi is named after Livingstone's birthplace in Scotland.

But in recent times, the mission to teach Christianity has been swapped for the desperate need to save lives and help the people of Africa.

Not surprisingly, because of the links with Livingstone, Malawi and Zambia are the two African states where Scotland has focused most of its efforts.

In January this year, a group of midwives from Edinburgh travelled to Malawi - the world's tenth poorest nation - to teach lifesaving skills to health workers, running courses on obstetric emergencies for medical colleagues and carrying out vital work at Bottom Hospital, as well as village health clinics.

Eight NHS staff, including four based in the labour ward at the Simpson Maternity Unit in Edinburgh Royal Infirmary, organised events to fund their trip, taking out their own supplies of sterile packs, gloves, stitches, cord clamps, cleaning materials and even knitted baby blankets. They were all shocked at the standards allowed to exist.

Graeme Walker, one of the doctors from Edinburgh Royal Infirmary who went out to Malawi, says: "There, a mother dies every six days. I have been working at the ERI for eight years and never had to witness that. They have blunt scissors. They have no clips to do C-sections and if they do, they have no swabs. If I want a hundred swabs, I can have them in Edinburgh. They have none."

Death rates are on the increase, as are HIV and Aids. But the lack of qualified staff is the other major problem, with 2200 nurses serving a population of 12 million.

"No-one can visit that hospital and not be moved and angered by it," Graeme adds. "Mothers shared razor blades to cut umbilical cords and bodies of babies who died overnight were left in a sluice until their mothers were well enough to take them away. This should not be going on in a 21st century hospital."

Their efforts have not gone un-noticed. First Minister Jack McConnell personally visited the wards when he was in Malawi earlier this year on his first foray into international development.

The result was 360,000 from a fund the Scottish Executive has now earmarked for aid to fund the secondment of Scottish doctors and midwives to Malawi to train and support the local health staff. The midwifery team, however, was not the first to venture to Africa. In 2003, NHS Lothian set up a partnership between doctors in Edinburgh and Zambia to look at ways of tackling the HIV and Aids epidemic and share their expertise. There, one in five of the population is infected, with 600,000 children under 15 living with HIV.

Board chairman Brian Cavanagh says of the partnership: "Edinburgh is recognised throughout the world as a centre of medical and academic excellence. We have a moral obligation to stretch out the hand of friendship and partnership."

DOCTORS from the Lothians went out to Zambia to look at how community services for people suffering from HIV and Aids could be developed, and how antiretroviral drugs could be used.

Complementary skills were once again shared when doctors from Zambia visited Edinburgh in May 2004. At the time, one visiting doctor, Dr Jabbin Mulwanda, said: "Zambia and Lothian may seem very distant, but the reality is that every part of our planet is interconnected. People are constantly on the move for work, for education and for holidays.

"We must think globally about every aspect of life, whether it is business, politics or health. This project is already proving a marvellous example of how shared information brings mutual advantage. Among the most important gains for Zambia is the chance to learn from Lothian's six years of experience with antiretroviral therapy programmes."

Medical charity Merlin has also enticed Edinburgh health workers to Africa over the years.

In Goma, Zaire, ERI nurse Ailsa Denney helped to care for 3000 refugee Rwandan children suffering from cholera and dysentery.

"I was supposed to be in Goma for six weeks but stayed seven months. It was very difficult, a lot of children died, sometimes ten a day. But because I stayed such a long time I began to see the difference we were making."

And Dr Paul Eunson, a paediatric neurologist who now works at the Sick Kids, has experienced life in Tanzania, Malawi and Rwanda.

"I feel in some way I have contributed to the health of children internationally which was very important to me," he says.