Merck Foundation CEO, Dr Rasha Kelej speaks about activities in healthcare in Africa

Rasha Kelej

Dr Rasha Kelej, you are the CEO of Merck Foundation, can you start by introducing the Foundation to us?

Merck Foundation is the Philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany. It is a non-profit organization that aims to improve health and wellbeing of people and advance their lives through science and technology. Our efforts are primarily focussed on raising awareness about non communicable diseases, empowering women and youth, improving access to innovative healthcare solutions in under-served communities, building healthcare and scientific research capacity in the fields of diabetes, hypertension, cancer and fertility care in underserved communities. Our vision is to see a world where everyone can lead a healthy and fulfilling life.

The Foundation seems to be so fond of Africa, why the interest, many will ask?

How do you settle on the choice of health needs or area and the countries that you engage with in Africa?

Prof Frank Stangenberg Haverkamp, the Chairperson of E-Merck KG and Merck foundation is very fond of Africa, believes in its potential.

Furthermore, there are many challenges in Africa with regards to healthcare and this is our speciality we can help, and this is what we do and we do it well.

But we also focus on Asia, we have programmes in many countries such as Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal, Myanmar and Cambodia; and we will expand to Latin America in 2020.

It has been a hectic year for you and the foundation and we will like to visit some of the initiatives you undertook, partnership between Merck Foundation and The African First Ladies Organization was established in January 2018 to cooperate in building health care capacity, can you shed some light on this?

How has the partnership worked so far, and may we have some concrete examples of First Ladies keeping to engagements taken with the Merck Foundation?

As you can see we have established many partnerships with First Ladies, we have visited Chad, and in line with First Lady of Chad, Hindi Deby Itno and we visited Niger too and launched with Aissata Issoufou Mahamadou.

And Gambia with Fatomattou Bah Barrow, and the Central African Republic with Brigitte Touadora.

And during our last annual conference in Senegal, 5th edition of Merck Foundation Africa Asia Luminary in Dakar, Senegal which was presided over by President of Senegal, Macky Sall, we established the partnership with First Lady of Botswana, Neo Jane Masisi. The First Lady Ghana, Rebecca Akufo-Addo, the First Lady of Burundi, Denise Nkurunziza, the First Lady of Sierra Leone, Fatima Maada Bio, and the First Lady of Zambia, Esther Lungu.

Also, we will soon launch there and in Liberia with the First Lady of Liberia.

We have also established partnership with First Lady of Guinea Conakry and all of them accepted gracefully to be ambassadors of ‘Merck more than a Mother’ to empower infertile women in their countries.

And they are working with us to implement all programmes to build health care capacity in partnership with their ministries of health.

We have also established partnerships with the ministry of health in each of their country and in other countries such as; Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and Ethiopia. 

The foundation supported the training of more than 40 Oncologists through a fellowship programme, why oncology, what was the selection criteria and does the programme have any future or it was just a one-time thing?

Launched in 2016, the Merck Oncology Fellowship Programme is an on-going initiative, which focuses on building professional cancer care capacity with the aim to increase the limited number of oncologists in Africa and developing countries. The programme provides one and two year Fellowships and master’s degree from Cairo University – Egypt, Tata Memorial Centre in India and Malaya University in Malaysia and a specially created two-year Oncology Fellowship with the University of Nairobi, Kenya, in partnership with African First Ladies Offices and Ministries of Health, Local Governments and Academia.

So far, over 43 candidates from more than 21 African countries have been enrolled in the Merck Oncology Fellowship Programme. We specially reach out to countries that do not have even single oncologists such as Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia or have only very few such as Chad, Niger, the Central African Republic and Guinea. It is our vision to create a strong platform of African specialists in these countries.  

You also had the first Merck Health Media Training to break the stigma around infertility in Africa, may we know the logic behind the focus on infertility and liaising with the media?

 According to a 2016 WHO data, one in every four couples in Africa and developing countries are infertile which means that there are 180 million couples are infertile. The incidence is much higher than in Europe and developed countries which have around maximum 8 per cent to 9 per cent, very high percentage of infertility is due to untreated infectious diseases which result from child marriage, unsafe abortion, unsafe delivery, STDs and genital mutation. Hence prevention is very important.

More importantly, in many cultures women suffer discrimination, mistreatment and violence due to the inability to bear children, although 50 per cent of infertility cases are due to male infertility, therefore we need to create a culture shift to respect women whether they are mothers or not, encourage men to speak up about their infertility and support their wives through the treatment journey. I strongly believe in the power of art and media. They are critical partners to address such sensitive topics. We have produced many projects of songs, and now we are going to produce drama (plays and documentaries) with African talents across the continent.  It will be the first and we will be creating a culture shift, raising awareness and exploring African talents.

We started “Merck More Than a Mother” campaign in 2015 now it is in 35 countries in Africa and Asia. It aims to empower infertile women through access to information, education and health and by changing mind-sets. This historic initiative supports governments in defining policies to enhance access to regulated, safe and effective fertility care. It also defines interventions to break the stigma around infertile women and raises awareness about infertility prevention and management. In partnership with First Ladies who are the ambassadors in their respective countries, academia, ministries of health and international fertility societies, the initiative also provides medical education and training for fertility specialists and embryologists to enable them to help and treat infertile couples in their countries.

Merck Foundation has many First Ladies to be Merck More Than a Mother ambassadors in their countries such as FL of Niger, Chad, Gambia, Central African Republic, Sierra Leone, Botswana, Zambia, Burundi, Ghana, Guinea and Gambia and more. This speaks volume about the work we are doing and the potential impact that is expected.

Also, part of the campaign is our Merck Embryology & Fertility Training Program, a three-month hands-on practical course to establish the platform of fertility specialists across Africa and Asia. Merck Foundation provides clinical and practical training for fertility specialists and embryologists in more than 35 countries across Africa and Asia such as: Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, Cote D’Ivoire, Ghana, Ethiopia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Nigeria, Benin, Mali, Burkina Faso, Senegal, Guinea Conakry, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cameron, Rwanda, Botswana, DR Congo, Congo Brazzaville, Gambia, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Myanmar and Cambodia. So far more than 80 candidates have taken the training.

Merck Foundation is making history in many African countries where they never had fertility specialists or specialized fertility clinics before ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ intervention, to train the first fertility specialists such as; in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Niger, Chad, and Guinea.

​Merck Foundation has also supported the establishment of the first ever Public IVF centres in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda. 

Amongst the leaders you met were Presidents Mahamadou Issoufou of Niger and Macky Sall of Senegal to discuss long term commitment to build healthcare capacities , using your experience with these two leaders and others you met, do you see a genuine commitment on their part to seriously tackle the issues around health care in Africa? 

 We have witnessed great commitment from our discussion with the Heads of State. All of them supported our efforts and endorsed our long term commitment to build healthcare capacity in partnership with their ministries of health. They all pledged partnership and facilitate our work to achieve our vision, which is improving the healthcare sector and serving the underserved communities in a quality and equitable way.

Senegal also hosted the 5th edition of the Merck Africa Asia Luminary, how did the forum go and what were some of the outcome?

This conference was very special since it was presided by the president of Senegal who led 10 African First Ladies and 15 ministers of health and 1000 participants from 57 countries. The First Ladies accepted gracefully to become Ambassadors of ‘Merck more than a Mother Campaign’ and the long term partnership with Merck Foundation with the aim to build health care capacity in their countries and to empower infertile women and break the stigma around infertility in Africa and Asia.

It took me a lot of efforts and time to bring all of them on board and after this successful conference I will start executing the programmes in each country with the support of each First Lady and ministry of health and for the countries that we have started already we will follow up and expand to improve access to equitable health care solution.

My first state visit after this conference was to Central African Republic in November. I will now be visiting Botswana, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Zambia and Burundi as invited by First Ladies there.

I will also visit Ghana soon, since we are going to conduct the next edition there with the  First Lady of Ghana. She is waiting for us to start working immediately.

Is there any part of Africa that the Merck Foundation has not yet reached, and what are some of the challenges you face as the CEO, and the Foundation in building these partnerships and helping to improve health services on the continent?

We still want to visit the DR Congo and Congo-Brazzaville, Guinea Conakry, Guinea -Bissau, Mali, Benin and Cameroon.

As per the challenges I face, it is the time I need to travel to all these countries and we all know it takes sometimes two days to travel from country to country since there is no direct flights in most cases.

And of course the follow up on implementation which takes also a lot of efforts and time, we have many stakeholders and you can imagine the magnitude of communication and discussion that can be generated to make things really happen and not only to talk about it.

With regards to 2019, can you share outlines of some the initiatives that the Merck Foundation already has on its calendar?

Many new countries we are launching this year in a big way, such as Burundi, Botswana, Zambia and Liberia.

There is a new initiative we are going to launch very soon, however I’d like to keep it as a surprise.

Last question, how do you envisage the future of healthcare in Africa and the partnerships that Merck Foundation is forging across the continent?

I think the future will be brighter if we cooperate together. The magnitude of the health challenges are very big to be addresses by one organization. The secret is in the private public partnership and to really get things done hands on.

No time for talking anymore. We need to talk only when we talk about our impact and way forward.

 Interview by: Maxwell Awumah

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