Botswana-UPenn Partnership celebrates its 10th anniversary

Botswana-UPenn Partnership

Ryan Littman-Quinn

When Penn formed a partnership with Botswana’s government and the University of Botswana in response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, no one could have imagined its profound impact on the lives of everyone involved.  

“Ten years ago they were dying and now they are living,” says Heather Calvert, administrator of the Botswana-UPenn Partnership.

In 2001, Penn responded to the southern African nation’s call for help in combating HIV/AIDS, which infected nearly one-quarter of Botswana’s adult population. The partnership began when one Penn doctor traveled to the country to help train Botswana’s medical professionals in administering antiretroviral (ARV) medication to HIV/AIDS patients.

At that time, the virus was spreading rapidly and the average life expectancy in Botswana dropped from about 70 years to 47 years. With the antiretroviral therapy, there’s been a dramatic turn-around in those numbers.

“People in southern Africa now have comparable life expectancy on ARV therapy as people in the U.S. They’re just going to have to stay on drugs for the rest of their lives until a cure is discovered,“ Calvert says.

To commemorate 10 years in Botswana, Penn is holding a series of events, including a Ten Year Anniversary Symposium on Oct. 14. Botswana-based faculty leaders will be on campus to share details of the partnership, and the event will include remarks from Provost Vincent Price; Harvey Friedman, director of the partnership; and Ezekiel Emanuel, Penn’s vice provost for global initiatives. The event runs from 8 a.m. to 12:30 p.m. in the 1st Floor Translational Research Center, Rubenstein Auditorium, Perelman Center for Advanced Medicine, 3400 Civic Center Blvd.

In the last decade, more than 1,000 faculty, staff and students from across the University have traveled to Botswana. As the partnership has grown, Penn has developed a broad interdisciplinary approach to training health care workers across Botswana to work on improving overall healthcare.

This is critical since people with HIV/AIDS have weakened immune systems compromised by the disease. “There are lots of complications from the disease,” says Friedman. “One of the most prevalent is TB [tuberculosis], the major cause of death in the country.”

Each year, Penn medical students spend a nearly two-month long global health rotation at Botswana’s main medical center, Princess Marina Hospital, in the capital city, Gaborone.

The School of Nursing offers a community health course in Botswana during the summer term to allow students to learn about everyday health issues in the country. In this exchange, Penn students work in Princess Marina Hospital and other community medical facilities.

Wharton undergraduate students prepare for careers in the global economy by traveling to Botswana for an international business course to learn about the country’s business environment and culture, and to explore the value of different business models. 

Penn is also working with the University of Botswana on a joint program to develop post-graduate training programs focused on internal medicine and create research programs on health and welfare issues for the citizens of Botswana. The universities are also partnering together on exchange programs in medical and nursing education and research training. 

With limited technological resources, doctors in Botswana have relied on telemedicine, using relatively low-tech cell phones to assist in diagnosing medical conditions, such as a skin rash or cervical cancer. In telemedicine, a doctor takes a cell phone photo and sends it to one of Penn’s doctors in Gaborone or Philadelphia. “There’s a very basic interface on the cell phone,” says Calvert. “The doctor can look at it and diagnose it and tell and advise the person sending it what to prescribe.”

Panelists at the Oct. 14 event will provide updates on the telemedicine programs, as well as the work that is being done on research and treatment of HIV, tuberculosis and women’s health issues in Botswana.   
Faculty, students and staff will also share their experiences in assisting the people of Botswana, discuss the future of Penn programs in the country and assess the impact of HIV/AIDS on the people of Botswana in the past decade.

On Wednesday, Nov. 30, Friedman will discuss the decade of work on Botswana at the Penn Museum “Imagine Africa” lecture. Friedman will talk from 6 to 7 p.m.

For more information about the events visit: www.med.upenn.edu/botswana/.

Originally published on October 13, 2011