VOLUME 33, NUMBER 29 THURSDAY, June 27, 2002

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Improving medical care in Afghanistan
UB team joins international effort to send medical textbooks to war-torn country

Reporter Assistant Editor

Nearly six years of Taliban rule and a decade-long war with Russia that ended in 1989 has left Afghanistan's health-care infrastructure in a shambles.
  Lt. Col. James Gardon (second from right) meets with other U.S. Army personnel and Afghani physicians working to improve medical care.

Nearly two-thirds of the Afghan population is without access to basic health-care facilities, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), the situation is worse in rural areas, with a doctor-patient ratio as low as 1 to 100,000. Infant and maternal mortality rates in Afghanistan are among the highest in the world. One in four children will not reach the age of five, most dying of vaccine-preventable diseases like polio and tuberculosis. And every year, 17,000 women die from complications related to childbearing.

While international organizations are rallying to fulfill even the most basic needs of food and clean water, there also is an immediate need for trained medical personnel and supplies.

Some members of the UB community, at the request of university alumnus and Cheektowaga native Lt. Col. James J. Gardon, B.S. '86, have joined the effort to improve medical care in Afghanistan by donating and shipping 40 boxes of medical textbooks to the country.

Gardon is stationed in Kabul as part of the Coalition/Joint Civil Military Operations Task Force charged with assessing and assisting United Nations and non-governmental agencies in re-establishing their presence in Afghanistan. A Desert Storm veteran who worked as an emergency/trauma nurse during that conflict, Gardon is part of the public health team that is evaluating the medical infrastructure in Kabul and the rest of the country.

About a month ago, he sent a simple email query to UB asking for medical textbooks. The response has been overwhelming.

"To say the least, it (the Afghan health-care system) is in terrible shape after 20-plus years in turmoil, especially after the Taliban," Gardon wrote in an email to the Reporter from Kabul. "One of the greatest needs expressed to me by physicians and hospital/medical staff is the need for professional journals and particularly medical books. They even expressed a preference for English texts. "Many of their texts were burned by the Taliban simply because they were western," he added.

"During the 1960s-'70s, Kabul University's medical school was one of the premier medical schools in Central Asia, and now the school is in the process of rebuilding," Gardon said, pointing out that the school's needs are pretty basic, with a preference for texts on medical diagnosis and treatment of diseases and surgical intervention.

He said that one of the first places he thought of asking for medical textbooks was his alma mater.

His initial query for help was fielded by Hugh Jarvis, Web team information coordinator for the Department of Creative Services in University Communications who monitors email sent to eUB, the university's main portal. Both Gardon and Jarvis agree this project was expedited because of the Internet.

"This is an ideal example of how you produce a Web site to facilitate information flow," said Jarvis. "In this case, Lt. Col. Gardon was able to find our Web site from Afghanistan, make his request, and we were able to quickly connect him with people who were ready and able to help him out. The Web is all about rapid connections: people to people, and people to information."

Jarvis forwarded Gardon's request to Pamela Rose, Web services and library promotion coordinator for the Health Sciences Library.

"Dr. Lee (Richard Lee, professor of pediatrics and obstetrics in the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences) mounted an initiative in the medical school, and I sent the call out over a number of library avenues," Rose said.

The lobby of the Health Services Library served as the collection site and Lee and Rose coordinated the sorting, packing and shipping of the textbooks. About 40 boxes of books were shipped to Afghanistan, with 26 of the boxes coming from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont. Another 20-30 boxes will be sent over within the next few months—donations are still coming in every week.

"Dr. Lee and Ellen Dussourd (director of International Student and Scholar Services) provided initial funding for the project and Ellen is working to arrange future funding," says Rose.

The Graduate Student Association also contributed funding to the project.

While the medical school in Kabul will be the primary recipient of the shipment, other health-care facilities in Bagram, Herat and Konduz also will receive textbooks.

"The Health Sciences Library's posting of my very first request got the ball rolling on a tremendous effort by businesses, hospitals, medical and nursing groups, schools and individuals. To date, we have received more than 5,000 books, 7,000 journals, 100 video and cassette tapes, and thousands of dollars worth of medical supplies," he noted.

"Everything was moving along—I was getting emails from various medical professionals who read the library's posting—when an amazing thing happened. I was working 18-20 days here in Kabul, going out on assessments all day, then writing and rewriting proposals for projects we wanted to do," he said.

"Then late one night, I got an email from Susan Yox of WebMD/Medscape, a Web site that provides clinical information to clinicians and other health-care professionals. Yox agreed to help me out and I got a page on Medscape to promote my project worldwide. I got reponses from England, Germany, Spain, Canada, and of course all across America."

Moreover, one of Medscape's advertisers sent more than 300 sets of blood pressure cuffs, stethoscopes and scrubs, along with dozens of other medical supplies.