WHO intern influencing ethical decisions for global health issues

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By Heather Travis
Friday, April 23, 2010
Sometimes it takes travelling to the other side of the world to gain a better understanding of the lessons taught in Canadian university classrooms.
 
Faculty of Health Sciences Health & Rehabilitation Science master’s student Michelle Allain recently returned from a three-month internship with the World Health Organization’s (WHO) Department of Ethics, Equity, Trade and Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The agency is the ethical arm of the vast organization.
 
Michelle Allain
 
 
In the throes of the global H1N1 influenza pandemic and the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, Allain was able to witness first-hand how WHO responds to world-wide health issues being at the centre of the ethical arm of the organization.
 
 “We can sit here as long as we want and learn about it in a classroom or learn about it in a textbook, but actually experiencing it, I think, really helped to broaden my view,” says Allain.
 
“Having the opportunity to meet and talk with people around the world, and see what health issues are impacting people from Australia to Africa and the Netherlands, it’s interesting because while there are differences, there are a lot of similarities.”
 
Allain embarked on the internship to gain practical experience in the field of health ethics, an area she has particular interest in as part of her thesis.
 
She collaborated on several projects with other areas of WHO.
 
One of the projects was with the Stop Tuberculosis (TB) program and involved creating a guide document on the ethics of TB control and management, which will be released this spring. This document discusses the ethical aspects of caring for TB patients, and different ethical scenarios for health care professionals in direct contact with patients and for government agencies providing for TB patients.
 
“Because it is a contagious disease, there are a lot of issues that are unique that have to be considered, so it is a joint project with the Stop TB program to guide people in how to make difficult decisions.”
 
She also helped with a project on infertility management with the reproductive health stream of WHO.
 
“Knowing that something you are working on has tangible effects really makes it worthwhile,” she says. “Especially in health, there are so many different ethical concerns that it is important they are tackled or addressed because people will often be encountering difficult situations and they could really use some guidance.”
 
Among the highlights was meeting WHO Director-General Dr. Margaret Chan, a Brescia University College alumna. Allain and Jannah Wigle, a Western alumna also interning at WHO, introduced themselves to Chan and she greeted them as “sisters” from her alma mater.
 
The internship offered many learning opportunities.
 
World Health Organization interns Michelle Allain, left, and Jannah Wigle, right, introduce themselves to Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, as fellow University of Western  Ontario alumnae.
 
 
For those who brought a brown bag lunch, seminars presented by different units of WHO were offered during the lunch hour on topics such as occupational health; the history of plague and how affects the world today; ethics; AIDS; and malaria.
 
Being at the WHO, you can’t help but be affected by the daily stream of global health issues that are monitored by the organization and the influential people sitting behind the desks, she says.
 
To help pitch in and support the relief effort in Haiti, the WHO interns held a fundraising event.
“Being able to see how ethics fits in with my own projects and seeing how it fits in on an international stage is really helpful because you can see how it plays out in a larger context – how it affects not only me and the people around me, but also people on the other side of the world,” she says.
 
“I respect everything they do and I would love to make my way back there again.”

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