Health and research

Ibrahim has a problem. The bright young doctor from Mali is doing research on sexual health of adolescents in a big French city but finds his work obstructed by the local government. Ibrahim has been forbidden to ask his research subjects about their sexual life. High rates of teenage pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections give the city a bad rep and the government deems it better to hush things up.

I met Ibrahim at the World Health Organization in Geneva at the annual workshop on sexual and reproductive health organized by the organization I work for, the Geneva Foundation for Medical Education and Research. All participants were from countries facing huge challenges in this respect: lack of care for pregnant women and newborns, few family planning services, unsafe abortions, high rates of sexually transmitted infections and a general lack of sexual health.

The workshop brought together a group of health professionals committed to improving the situation in their country and offered them a platform to discuss some of their many challenges. Where do you find teenagers to discuss sexual health in a country where school attendance is low? Is it ethical to teach community workers to administer contraceptive injections in a region where there’s a lack of nurses and doctors? To what extent are projects fighting female genital mutilation in one country useful for another country with a different social setting?

Particularly exasperating for the workshop’s participants is sabotage of their research by the government. Doctor S. is studying child wishes of HIV infected people in Iran. Her government refuses to acknowledge there’s such a thing as HIV and, if there is, then those infected are drug users so they’re not supposed to want children. As a consequence, Doctor S. keeps a low profile for the safety of her research subjects and herself.

So doctor S. could not to be in the group picture we took of all the workshop participants, lecturers and organizers. Ibrahim could: he will soon return to Mali. France will lose a smart doctor and the opportunity to improve the health of a particularly vulnerable group of people.

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