Saskatoon

Long-standing Sask. partnership brings new COVID-19 testing lab to rural Mozambique

A 30-year health-care partnership between Saskatchewan and Mozambique has yielded a key tool to helping the south African nation in its fight against COVID-19.

Project has trained hundreds of health workers in both countries, improved maternal and child health

A health-care worker tests a sample for COVID-19 in the newly established lab in the province of Inhambane, Mozambique. The lab was set up through a partnership with the University of Saskatchewan, part of a 30-year connection that has included health worker exchanges. (Submitted by Jessie Forsyth)

A 30-year health-care partnership between Saskatchewan and Mozambique has yielded a key tool to helping the south African nation in its fight against COVID-19.

The first COVID-19 testing lab in the province of Inhambane started processing samples this week. Until now, tests had to be sent away to the national capital of Maputo.

It took more than two weeks to get results. Now, a patient is informed within in 24 hours.

The lab is part of a multimillion-dollar, 30-year-long partnership with the University of Saskatchewan and the Health Ministry of Mozambique.

It has seen U of S health professionals travel to Mozambique to learn about rural African health, and to train hundreds of dental hygienists, nurses and others. In turn, Mozambican students and health workers have visited the U of S to take courses or teach.

Project manager Jessie Forsyth says the COVID-19 testing will give health workers a more accurate picture of the prevalence of the illness in the region.

"It's an important piece to be able to track what's happening and to better plan," Forsyth said in an interview from Inhambane.

Officially, COVID-19 numbers in Mozambique are low at the moment, but that's at least partly because they haven't been able to do many tests, she said. People may be contracting and even dying of undiagnosed COVID-19.

Forsyth also noted other countries, such as India, have had low numbers and then been suddenly overwhelmed.

She says the new testing lab will help individuals to be healthier, but will help them to see a truer picture of the pandemic in the region.

A 30-year partnership between the University of Saskatchewan and the province of Inhambane, Mozambique is designed to improve maternal and child health, but it's also working to prevent and treat COVID-19. (Submitted by Jessie Forsyth)

Another senior project member, Antonio Tanda, said the lab is a huge asset to Inhambane's health system.

"It greatly increases the province's COVID-19 testing capacity, which is essential to managing infection rates, and it strengthens the province's overall capacity for diagnosing a range of health concerns. It's a testament to the long-standing partnership between Canada and Mozambique and is much appreciated."

Tanda and Forsyth noted the lab can also test for tuberculosis and other maladies, and will serve patients long after the COVID pandemic is over.

Vaccination of health workers is now underway, thanks to World Health Organization's vaccine bank, COVAX. Doses have also been shipped from India and China.

But the general population in Mozambique and in many low-income countries likely won't be vaccinated for many months. That's why testing and basic public health measures will make the difference, Forsyth says.

"Here, prevention is the key. I've just talked a bit about vaccination, a bit about increased testing capacity, but the real issue is that people need to prioritize prevention above all, because the care for being sick is extremely limited," she said.

Hundreds of health-care workers have been trained in Mozambique and Saskatchewan through the partnership. (Submitted by Jessie Forsyth)

The U of S partnership began more than 30 years ago, coinciding with the waning days of apatheid in South Africa. Not only did the government in South Africa oppress its own Black citizens — it also conducted bombing campaigns and guerilla wars against Black regimes in Mozambique and other countries.

Many of Mozambique's leaders, including health-care workers, were killed or forced to flee. Its hospitals and other infrastructure were destroyed.

Saskatchewan people like Gerri and Murray Dickson, Don Kossick and Denise Kouri worked in Mozambique during this undeclared war.

They started offering basic dental and health clinics, but soon realized the impact could be far greater if they trained new people to do this work, and so worked with Mozambican experts on training. Hundreds of Mozambican health workers now staff clinics across the countryside.

The current five-year focus of the project, funded by more than $15 million from Global Affairs Canada, is to improve child and maternal health.

Forsyth said Saskatchewan people need to know the partnership is making a huge difference.

"The interest among people in Saskatchewan to continue to reach out and think otherwise and look elsewhere is hugely appreciated, but also carries a lot of long-term positive impacts," she said.

"The impacts are very very real."

now