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Organization Works To Meet Shortage Of Black Doctors In South Africa

With Africa suffering a brain drain as health professionals seek higher paying jobs outside the continent - one organization is working to slow that trend. MESAB, Medical Education for South African Blacks, is raising money to help young South Africans attend medical school.

MESAB began raising money for medical education in South Africa in 1985. At the time, it was estimated the country had only 500 black doctors. Today, MESAB says that number now stands at 2500 – still inadequate to meet the health needs of the country’s more than 30 million blacks.

Former US Health and Human Services Secretary – Dr. Leon Sullivan – is chairman of the organization.

He says, "The health status of South Africans is far below that that we enjoy here in the United States. And part of the reason for that is the lack of health is the lack of health personnel. So MESAB, our acronym for Medical Education for South African Blacks, is really helping through our efforts to provide scholarship support so that more black youngsters can enter medicine, dentistry, nursing and the other health professions to improve the health status of people in South Africa."

In an effort to streamline the organization, MESAB officials recently decided to combine their US and South African governing boards. Based in Washington, DC, half the board members are from the United States and half from South Africa. South African doctor Saul Levin is MESAB’s president and CEO.

"We raise money both here in the United States, which has clearly been the bulk of the money – and we’re beginning to really increase the South Africans and the businesses in South Africa to raise money there as well. That money then comes in and is transferred back to South Africa, where we then notify all the universities and technical colleges that we have “x” amount of dollars or rands, which is the currency in South Africa, and here are the different criteria for the different scholarships," he says.

Dr. Levin says it costs nearly $50,000 dollars to train a doctor in South Africa. The South African government pays up to half that amount. Nevertheless, for many young blacks the balance is still too high.

"The job MESAB is doing in helping black students who may come from the rural areas or urban areas where - as you know – there’s a lot of poverty, lack of housing, electricity, no jobs. These are students who obviously have the ability to go to the university. But without the money to fulfill the second half that the government doesn’t pay for, MESAB fulfills that role," he says.

As health professionals seek jobs elsewhere, many sub-Saharan African countries are hard-pressed to provide quality care. And HIV/AIDS has strained resources even further. Dr. Sullivan says he hopes MESAB’s efforts slow the brain drain, but adds more needs to be done.

"This by itself will not do it. Clearly, countries in the West need to really find ways to train more of their own citizens for areas in the health profession, as well as other areas. I think it’s really not right, certainly not fair that we in the United States and countries in Europe take advantage of these countries. And we rob them of their needed personnel. They have invested their dollars and their time into these young people becoming doctors, nurses, dentists, other health professionals. And then when they have finished their training, we have recruiters who go in and lure these people away. And that really impoverishes the country," he says.

MESAB President, Dr. Levin, says the organization has a long range plan to help meet South Africa’s medical needs.

"A South African health care professional sees about 40 patients a day. And they roughly work about 50 weeks a year. So, in essence, every health care professional sees about 10,000 patient visits a year. Our goal is to reach one million additional patient visits by 2009. And if we’re to achieve that goal, we must train a minimum of 100 additional black professionals every year for the next six or seven years to really meet that one million extra patient visits," he says.

Dr. Levin says MESAB does not require students to sign an agreement, promising to remain in South Africa after graduating and gaining experience. He says the students “clearly see the need to stay home in South Africa.”

Often, they later become mentors to new students. The mentoring program is credited with reducing the dropout rate by helping students adjust to college life, as well as to computers and other technology.