Alumni Spotlight: Alumni Spotlight: How did Achiri Fon-Achu’s adverse childhood experience inform a pursuit of medical training and an MPH in MCH?

Achiri Fon-Achu (he/him/his; MPH 2022) was one of two #UMNMCH students who received the Robert Ten Bensel Scholarship in 2021-2022. The scholarship is a one-time scholarship awarded annually by Epi to students who demonstrate outstanding potential for contributions to the principles of maternal child health, human equity, and community social justice. In spring 2022, we invited Achiri to answer a few questions about his path to MCH and his plans for the future. Please read on to learn more about Achiri’s work as a medical doctor and public health masters student working with MCH communities.

Background

I am an International Student who recently completed the Masters of Public Health (MPH) program in May 2022. I’ve spent approximately 30% of my life in Cameroon and 70% in Nigeria, where I received my secondary and tertiary (medical) education. I’m currently residing in a hilly city in southeastern Nigeria called Enugu, whose name is derived from two Igbo words Énú Ụ́gwụ́, meaning “hill top”.

I obtained my medical degree (MBBS) in 2018 from Ebonyi State University in Nigeria and went on to undergo a one-year interdisciplinary clinical internship training at the University of Calabar Teaching Hospital. After completing this internship, I subsequently began my MPH training with a concentration in Maternal and Child Health (MCH) and a minor in Health Services Research, Policy, and Administration at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (UMNSPH). UMNSPH’s strong emphasis on diversity, equity, and inclusion really attracted me. This was demonstrated by its exclusion of the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) to improve marginalized groups’ access to higher education. My UMNSPH experience has further enhanced my desire to build a career that centers on providing equal opportunities for good health and education for the less privileged.

Besides my professional/academic activities, I enjoy learning new languages and cultures. Although English is the language I am most fluent in, I’ve been able to achieve some basic fluency in French and, to a lesser extent, Igbo. I also enjoy spending most of my free time running marathons or lifting weights.

Why did you choose a degree in public health with an MCH concentration?

My desire to become a medical doctor and eventually pursue graduate studies in public health began in 2001 when my family was a victim of a flood disaster that destroyed our home in Limbe, Cameroon. We were taken to an internally displaced persons’ camp located within Saker Baptist College, Limbe. We were living like rodents in overcrowded rooms with no cross ventilation. The toilets had excreta filled up to the brim, and one would have to stand on the toilet seat to ease oneself. During this period, I also noticed doctors, nurses, and other health personnel who, as part of government and non-governmental organizations, were exerting themselves to provide humanitarian relief for sick women, children, and vulnerable families. I felt the desire to develop such skills and be part of humanitarian and community health intervention efforts that can provide relief to vulnerable children like me, as well as women and families.

My interest in the MCH concentration was further reinforced while working as an intern doctor in Nigeria. I witnessed many children lose their lives due to late presentation to the hospital resulting from poor access to health care services and/or parents’ delay in recognizing the need to seek the health care needs for their children. Most of these mortalities and morbidities could be reduced if patients had access to well functioning primary health care systems (comprising both facility-based and community-based programs) in their communities. A high rate of maternal mortality was also evident in my hospital of training despite a major part of the hospital’s revenue coming from the Obstetrics and Gynecology Department. Several factors related to the “three delay” model were the likely causes of this high maternal mortality rate. I became convinced that MCH is a priority area in Sub-Saharan Africa and I needed to be adequately trained to address issues affecting this population through primary disease preventive measures.

What are you working on, and how does your work impact MCH populations? 

I just rounded off some work at the Mfangano Community Health Field Station in Mfangano Island, Kenya, which is a community-rooted enterprise launched in collaboration between the University of Minnesota, Maseno University, and the Organic Health Response (OHR) of Mfangano Island in Kenya. I collaborated with research staff from the Mfangano Island community to synthesize results of several longitudinal community studies focused on several health issues including the factors inducing the high risk of Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) among women and girls on the Island. Mfangano Island has an HIV prevalence of 30%, which makes it one of the most HIV impacted communities in the world. The results from analyzing these studies have been used to create a poster and a feedback report to the community members, research funders, and other stakeholders.

Since January 2022, I have also been involved with a US non-profit called Taimaka whose mission, among other agricultural activities, is to end malnutrition in Gombe State, Nigeria. I have been able to design a protocol for a prospective cohort study to explore the effect of severe acute malnutrition (SAM) treatment on the long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes in affected children under five in the Gombe state. I have also been investigating the rationale for the treatment team’s utilization of ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF) vs. F-100  for the outpatient treatment of SAM.

As of last month (July 2022), I began working as a primary health care physician with Equal As One (EAO), a US non-governmental organization operating in Nigeria. I am part of a carefully selected dynamic team of health professionals pioneering a primary health center pilot project (Ụnọ Ọgwụ Ụmụnna or Kindred Clinic) in Akpugo, Nkanu West Local Government Area, Enugu. One of EAO’s primary focuses is maternal and child health, with the organization determined to reduce health indicators such as maternal and infant mortality in Nigeria.

EAO has been able to raise funds from generous donors to build this primary health center which will also serve as a medical home for these less privileged rural residents. EAO’s goal is to assist this rural community in setting up a sustainable intersectoral health system that will be funded by rural residents themselves. This project is intended to be exemplary and replicable in other low-income communities in the world and by other health organizations.

How do you plan to apply your MCH MPH degree after graduation?

I intend to combine my clinical practice with the MCH public health training I have received by promoting evidence-based health care that is easily accessible and affordable for women, children, and families in vulnerable populations of Sub-Saharan Africa. In this regard, I will be spending the next few years in primary health care as a rural physician actively collaborating with MCH populations to foster community participation in primary prevention as well as early identification and prompt treatment of disease conditions. My MCH MPH degree will also serve as a good foundation for doctoral training in International Health. I intend to receive further training, in the context of low and middle-income countries, on how to analyze new health systems initiatives and health care delivery methods as well as effective monitoring and evaluation of pre-existing systems to enhance appropriate modifications where it is necessary for health systems strengthening. My focus will significantly be on primary health care and humanitarian health systems.

My long-term goal in clinical medicine is to undergo residency training in either Emergency Medicine which will enable me to provide emergency health relief to families in humanitarian settings or Cardiology with a sub-specialization in cardio-obstetrics.