Research Builds Hope
Last October, Congolese physician and human rights advocate Denis Mukwege narrowly escaped death when gunmen attacked him and killed one of his security guards outside Mukwege's home in Bukavu. Lisa Peters, MPH '08, says the attack "underscores the importance of Dr. Mukwege's work, the impact he is having in the region, and the desperate need for the international community to come together for his cause."
Peters speaks from first-hand experience. She met Mukwege in Ann Arbor in 2010, when he came to campus to accept the University of Michigan's prestigious Wallenberg Award for his work treating the victims of sexual violence in war-torn eastern Congo. Peters asked Mukwege, the medical director of Congo's Panzi Hospital, how the University of Michigan could help. He said Panzi needed U-M's research expertise.
Since that conversation, Peters has spent more than eight months in Congo working with Mukwege and his colleagues at Panzi to systematize and expand the hospital's research agenda and begin implementation of a cervical cancer screening program. In collaboration with U-M faculty members Jane Hassinger, Janis Miller, and Paul Clyde, Peters and the Panzi staff are also developing a training program in mental health for local nurses. Many of the women who come to Panzi need psychosocial support, Peters notes, and there's a critical need to build local capacity for trauma care in rural areas.
Despite the violence that plagues eastern Congo—and nearly claimed Mukwege's life—Peters believes the region can emerge from its present crisis. A sound and robust research agenda, she adds, is crucial to that process:
"Everyone goes to Panzi Hospital for data, so making sure the numbers are accurate is of the utmost importance. If you can't answer questions about how many people are there, and why, and what support they receive, you can't get funding. Are things working? Where do we need to focus next? None of this can happen without having numbers to support what you're doing.
"What we do here at the University of Michigan and the U-M School of Public Health is exactly what they need—we solve problems by getting data and then applying it to make things better. Panzi needs to develop an infrastructure and format for research. Eastern Congo receives millions of dollars in humanitarian aid every year. The projects those dollars fund are incredibly important—emergency food and medicine—but people are so focused on the immediate crisis they're missing a critical training and education component. It's changing, though. The physicians and staff at Panzi are starting to see the importance of research, evaluation, and training, and they're teaching people to think through projects on their own.
"Eastern Congo is an incredibly hopeful place. Many of the doctors there trained abroad and could go somewhere else like Belgium or France, but they are amazingly dedicated, and they stay there. That's why I keep going back. If I didn't think it was possible for things to change, I wouldn't be there. You can see it. And Dr. Mukwege has inspired that vision in his whole staff. "
Denis Mukwege was featured in the spring/summer 2011 issue of Findings.