In 2019, Peace Corps Response launched the Advancing Health Professionals program. Then the pandemic hit.
By Sarah Steindl
Advancing Health Professionals (AHP) is designed to strengthen health systems in five countries. Photo courtesy Peace Corps
Bolstering public health in communities where Volunteers serve has been part of Peace Corps since the beginning. In 2019, under the aegis of Peace Corps Response, the agency launched Advancing Health Professionals (AHP), a refocused effort to train healthcare professionals and improve healthcare systems in the African nations of Malawi, Tanzania, Uganda, Liberia, and Eswatini. The program came online just months before COVID-19 swept the globe. Healthcare disparities were exacerbated, scarce resources further stretched.
The value of AHP — to improve healthcare education and strengthen health systems at a societal level — became even more pronounced, notes program manager Dawn Childs. “The pandemic highlighted the need to help the countries grow their programs,” she says, “so that they can educate more nurses, pharmacists, and more physicians.” Yet the pandemic also interrupted the AHP Volunteers’ in-person work, as they had to be evacuated from their sites around the globe.
A training session with Advancing Health Professionals, Malawi — a program Towela Nyika has managed since 2018. Courtesy Peace Corps Malawi
For Volunteers with AHP, there is no age limit, nor is prior Peace Corps experience required. AHP staffs non-clinical assignments with individuals who have backgrounds in medicine, nursing, pharmacy, mental health, pre-clinical education, healthcare administration, healthcare services delivery, and midwifery.
“There’s going to be another pandemic in our lifetime. We’re one connected world. So we’re going to have to be a global program, strengthening health systems.”
— Anna Vecchi
Childs has worked with the Peace Corps agency for a short time, but she brings extensive experience in Africa with the CDC and the U.S. military. One member of the AHP team who brings experience as a Volunteer is Anna Vecchi, an outreach specialist who served in Malawi 2015–17. After that, she served as national malaria coordinator for Peace Corps Response in Malawi 2017–18.
“It’s the transfer of knowledge that the AHP program highlights,” Vecchi says. Along with bringing technical skills, Volunteers lean hard on their abilities as communicators, teachers, and students — learning about communities where they’re serving and how local healthcare systems work.
More broadly, Vecchi says, “It’s not enough to think in terms of public health. From now on we need to think in terms of global health. There’s going to be another pandemic in our lifetime. We’re one connected world. So we’re going to have to be a global program, strengthening health systems.”
This is part of a series of stories on and by Crisis Corps and Peace Corps Response Volunteers and staff who have served in the past 25 years.