For a small country, Eritrea has recently been getting a lot of attention in the news – issues surrounding the quality of life of it’s citizens, UN sanctions and the disappearance of it’s national soccer team in Kenya. On a much more optimistic note, despite it’s reluctant to work with external partners, the government has now been working for years with George Washington University (GWU) and Physicians for Peace (PFP) to address the severe physician shortage in the country. This month, the Orotta School of Medicine graduate it’s first class of 31 physicians and 8 pediatricians. A result of a collaboration between Physicians or Peace and the George Washington University, the medical school and three residency programs have been established over the last three years to address the severe physician shortage. Plans are now underway to start an internal medicine program – a challenging and very exciting undertaking that I am leading at GWU. As I embark on this journey to learn about this country in East Africa I am reminded of the similarities in the region, yet the unique culture, history and challenges of each individual country.
Some background on the country, Eritrea is only slightly larger than Pennsylvania, on the east coast of Africa between Djibouti and Sudan. Having separated from Ethiopia in 1997, it is a small country with a population of just over 5.5 million, 97% of whom are under the age of 65 years (the median age is 18years and life expectancy is just over 61 years). 20% of the population lives in urban areas (the capital of which is Asmara), therefore, the majority live in rural areas. The fertility rate is 4.7 which is high for western standards but puts it behind many other sub-Saharan African countries. Interestingly, the rate of HIV infection is just over 1% (much lower than other parts of eastern and southern Africa). That said, they are at risk of other infectious diseases such as the Neglected Tropical Diseases, Hepatitis, Malaria and Typhoid Fever.
Currently, there is only one political party – The People’s Front for Democracy and Justice. The economy of Eritrea is largely based on subsistence farming with 80% of the population involved in farming and herding. A May 2000 offensive by Ethiopia affected a large portion of land and homes in Eritrea and the government has since been trying to stabilize the economy and make improvements to infrastructure. Unemployment, illiteracy and low skills are challenges that need to be addressed for Eritrea to make economic strides.
With the news of UN sanctions on Eritrea being approved, and given the backdrop of the political and economic challenges within the country, the collaboration between GW, PFP and Eritrea provide a ray of hope for at least better access to care, better health and utlimately a better life.