Friday, July 30, 2010

Straddling two continents

The work it takes to prepare for life in a less developed country is a second job in itself.  There are numerous things to sort out in the next couple months: housing, plane tickets, visa applications, vaccinations, etc.  Emails in my work inbox alternate between my current workload plans underway with my soon-to-be co-workers at MCI.

This trip is not my first experience with living overseas.  Back in 2004, I lived in Australia for four months as part of my PhD dissertation work, thanks to having an advisor who encouraged overseas trips.  The passage of time often leads to hazy, less-than-accurate remembrances, but I don't recall having this same internal struggle to balance my PhD workload and proposed research in Australia.  Perhaps it's as simple as the self-absorbed nature of a graduate program, in which the activities of one graduate student rarely impact the completion of another student's project, but I didn't spend very much time or energy preparing for that trip.  Getting the visa for Oz was a simple case of determining that I should be called a "Visiting Academic", sending in my passport and some forms, and waiting for my passport to come back--unlike the extensive process underway for my Ghana visa (more on that later).

The skill of multi-tasking is both a blessing and a curse when it comes to planning this trip.  While I'm glad I can sort out many of the logistics while I'm still here, it makes it difficult to focus on what I still need to do here in the US on a day-to-day basis.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Google's Great Gap

My in-country manager, Abenaa, has found a potential place for two other GSK volunteers and me to live when we're in Kumasi. She provided us with the postal address and some references to its location ("in our prime residential area of Asokwa").  I did the first thing that came to mind when given a postal address: go to  Shock of the day: Google maps could not find the address.  (I was not alone in this thought--my fellow GSK volunteer had also tried to Google map the location with no success.)

Try this experiment: go to Google maps and type in "Asokwa, Kumasi, Ghana".  Zoom in to 2-3 clicks from the top.  Scroll around the map a bit and you'll find large sections without street names.  That's because....apologies to fellow U2 fans, but there really is a place where the streets have no name. 

Don't believe me?  Check out this article from the Ghana Embassy webpage.   The Ghanaian government has ordered all metropolitan and municipal governments to name their streets by the end of the year.  Since Google maps is only as good as its information source, when there is no information, it can't be Googled.

I told my Ghanaian co-worker, Kirby, about the inability of Google maps to find my proposed housing.  He responded with friendly laughter and the comment that this is good preparation for the changes that await me in Ghana.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

They call me mellow yellow

Yellow fever is found in a belt of countries concentrated around the equator in Africa and South America.  It is part of the lovely group of hemorrhagic diseases and has been on an upswing worldwide since the 1980s.

Getting a yellow fever vaccine isn't as simple as a Hep A vaccine or other adult immuniziations.  Here in the RTP area, Duke Travel Clinic is one of the few places that the vaccine is given.  (A registry of providers can be found on the CDC website.) 

Proof of yellow fever vaccination is required for entry for many countries, with the proof given by an International Vaccination Certificate (IVC, a picture is shown at the bottom of this link to the CDC).  A sticker from the yellow fever vaccine must be placed on this form and the health care provider has to sign it.  If you don't get this form when you leave your doctor's office, you might as well not have gotten the vaccine in the eyes of those countries that require documentation.
The importance of the vaccine is underscored by information on the CDC website on the outcomes of unvaccinated travellers.  While only nine people came down with yellow fever, eight of those nine didn't make it.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Boy Scout motto time

If you missed the reference, be prepared.  Especially when it comes to personal health.

As part of my preparation for this trip, I need to be poked like a human pincushion with a range of vaccines.  The list begins with acronyms for a range of "routine" adult vaccines that I should already have, which include Tdap (diptheria, tetanus and pertussis), MMR (measles, mumps and rubella), and polio.  The country-specific vaccines include Hep A/B, typhoid, meningococcal meningitis, seasonal flu, and yellow fever.  (More on the yellow fever vaccine in a later post.)

I'm also supposed to carry a needle kit for the possibility that I need an IV drip or other medical care, since you can't guarantee that single-use needles will actually be on their first use.  Access to typical OTC drugs will likely be limited, too, necessitating a fully-stocked med kit.  (Luckily, I'm OCD enough to carry one of those on my trips to the more developed world.)

In addition to the vaccinations and other precautions, I'll need to take Malarone, an anti-malarial drug, as a preventive measure for the entire time I'm there.  I'm happy to report that I took it back in 2006 during a two-week trip to South Africa with no ill effects, so let's hope the 7-month duration is fine, too.

Earlier this week I was reminded of how important these precautions are.  An email from my GSK health care practitioner, who told me my 8-month supply of Malarone has been authorized,  was followed by an email from my US-based program director, who is over Ghana now, where my in-country supervisor has come down with malaria.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Saving the world, one volunteer at a time

From the moment of Witty's announcement, I knew that I wanted to be a PULSE volunteer. In my final year of undergraduate studies at NC State, I considered numerous career options, including the very real possibility of joining the Peace Corps.  Those who know me well can understand my motivations, given the bleeding heart that I (figuratively) wear on my sleeve.  Although I strongly felt the urge to do my part to "promote world peace and friendship, per the Peace Corps mission, I felt I needed to have a stronger grounding in the so-called "real world" before undertaking such a challenging role.  I also wanted to use the engineering skills that I had gained in college and didn't see that opportunity in the Peace Corps. On a side note, my story may have followed a different path if Engineers without Borders, a potentially perfect combination of Peace Corps and engineering, had existed at the time.  However it was founded in 2000--by a civil engineering professor at the University of Colorado, where (coincidentally) I was in grad school at the time.

When Witty announced this initiative in 2008, it provided me with an opportunity to contribute to the greater social good, much like the Peace Corps, while remaining a part of the supportive community of colleagues I have at GSK. I'm thrilled that I've been given a meaningful task near and dear to my heart in my Pulse assignment...but we'll save that discussion for another day.