$9M for Western-led bid to help Rwanda and Burundi

Sixteen years ago, in the wake of the Rwandan genocide that killed 800,000 people, Londoner David Cechetto started helping to rebuild the African nation’s shattered health-care system.

Tuesday, the London doctor and researcher got a huge boost for his passion when a group he leads, training health-care workers in Rwanda, received $9 million in federal funding to continue its work.

At Western University’s Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Cechetto is a professor in anatomy and cell biology.

But he also heads Western’s Rebuilding Health in Rwanda project, which began with a phone call in 2000.

Mention Rwanda to most Canadians, and the ethnic bloodbath that tore it apart quickly springs to mind. After the president’s plane was shot down in 1994, majority Hutus went after the minority Tutsi population in a slaughter that brought in UN peacekeepers roundly criticized for failing to stop the killings.

The conflict was dramatized in the Hollywood movie Hotel Rwanda, starring Don Cheadle.

But mention Rwanda to Cechetto, and an entirely different picture emerges.

He was no stranger to Africa before he got the call 16 years ago that would change his life. As a younger man, married with a child, he had taught at a Nigerian medical school.

That was when his love affair with Africa began, he said.

Flash forward to 2000, with Cechetto at Western, and the school was called by a professor at the National University of Rwanda, and the country’s ambassador to Canada, wondering if Western would be interested in a partnership to rebuild Rwanda’s war-ravaged medical education system.

Cechetto was tapped by Western, with the only condition that he visit Rwanda before deciding.

“That trip was the start of it all,” Cechetto recalled. “Seeing the need in the country, and making those relationships, made me hooked from the beginning.”

Cechetto has been working in Rwanda ever since, with numerous projects and initiatives.

One of his first tasks was a health care assessment of Rwanda for the Global Fund, an organization that is active in the country and brings together different partners to fight health problems in needy areas.

He found out health-care workers in Rwanda were OK performing routine tasks, but not prepared to handle many emergency situations, especially in prenatal care. The funding announced Tuesday for Cechetto’s team is to help reduce high infant and maternal death rates in Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi.

“Too many mothers’ and babies’ lives are lost to causes we can prevent,” Cachetto maintains.

According to UNICEF, the number of children under five who died in Rwanda in 2013 reached 48,000 and in Burundi,  26,000, the equivalent of a small Ontario city. The death toll for mothers was even higher.

The toll taken on young children and mothers is partly due to lack of resources and a health-care system unprepared for the realities of childbirth, said Cechetto, who points to other factors as well.

Six years ago, his original Rwandan research under his belt, Cechetto received his first round of federal funding, allowing him to focus on training health-care workers and strengthening midwifery and pediatrics.

Now, his team’s focus is not just training health workers in Rwanda, but also making health care more accessible by involving others who don’t practise medicine and rolling that out village by village, and eventually to Burundi and other countries.

“The idea is to have a program to be developed and distributed to make the greatest impact possible on the health situation in prenatal care,” he said.

Global Affairs Canada, Ottawa’s lead department in international development and humanitarian aid, is funding the project.

The London-led group includes others from Schulich, and other schools including Dalhousie University in Halifax.

“Rwanda has become a huge part of my life,” said Cechetto, adding: “We have an opportunity to do a really great thing.”

David Cechetto (Supplied photo)
David Cechetto (Supplied photo)

By Hailey Salvian, The London Free Press